University of Georgia

University of Georgia

Cellular biology researcher targets lethal parasites that affect millions

Photography By Peter Frey
University of Georgia researcher Roberto Docampo

Chagas disease and African sleeping sickness kill more than 10,000 people every year in Latin America and Africa.

Millions are currently living with the potentially deadly diseases, and tens of millions more are at risk of being infected.

With numbers like those, you’d expect more people to be paying attention. But neither Chagas nor sleeping sickness receives much press.

Roberto Docampo wants to change that.

“In some areas, you have 50 to 60 percent of people who are infected with Chagas disease,” says Docampo, the Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Cellular Biology. This obscenely high disease burden strains developing nations’ resources by reducing the available workforce and complicates even the most routine medical procedures by making it almost impossible to ensure a parasite-free blood supply for surgeries and transfusion.

The inadequate housing that frequently dots the landscapes of impoverished nations makes the task of eradicating the bugs much more difficult.

“The insects that carry the parasite invade houses, so it’s practically impossible to eliminate the disease,” Docampo explains. “The only way to do it is by improving housing, which would prevent the bugs from getting inside,” something that may not be possible in the nations where the diseases are most prevalent. Instead, Docampo is working to find new targets and tools that could eliminate the trypanosome parasites that cause both Chagas and sleeping sickness.

Most cases of Chagas disease occur in Latin America, where infected kissing bugs, also known as assassin or vampire bugs, bite people or animals and transfer the parasite into their bloodstreams. African sleeping sickness is contracted through the bite of a tsetse fly.

Docampo’s Organelle

University of Georgia’s Roberto Docampo and his team discovered an organelle that is necessary for the survival of the trypanosomes, making it a potential target for drugs. The team is now investigating medical interventions that could destroy the parasite by singling out the organelle.

The organelle Docampo discovered fuses to another organelle within the cell.
The organelle Docampo discovered fuses to another organelle within the cell.
Electron microscopy shows the organelle Docampo discovered within the trypanosome.
Electron microscopy shows the organelle Docampo discovered within the trypanosome.
Trypanosomes, shown in purple, evade their host’s immune system, causing diseases like African sleeping sickness and Chagas.
Trypanosomes, shown in purple, evade their host’s immune system, causing diseases like African sleeping sickness and Chagas.

Working with colleagues in the university’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, Docampo discovered a specialized structure, or organelle, inside the trypanosome parasites.

Proteins within this structure proved to be responsible for the parasite’s growth and replication, making ideal targets for fighting the disease.

“These parasites are separated by millions of years of evolution from humans, and it is theoretically possible to target these organelles for chemotherapy,” Docampo says. “The idea is always to find pathways that are different in the parasite than in the host in order to find targets for vaccines, drugs or diagnostics.”

Experiments proved the organelle may be the key to successfully battling the trypanosome: Once the proteins were disabled, the parasite couldn’t reproduce or cause disease in its host.

Docampo is now looking for ways to specifically target those proteins with medications. His lab has already shown that the parasites that cause Chagas are vulnerable to specific antifungal agents, and he is continuing to search for new targets that could eliminate the threat trypanosomes pose to both humans and animals.

“These are fundamental discoveries about cellular function and life,” Docampo says. “We will continue to investigate these structures and pathways in the hope of finding new therapies to treat these diseases that affect so many people.”

Roberto Docampo

About the Researcher

Roberto Docampo

Barbara and Sanford Orkin/Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Cellular Biology
Department of Cellular Biology
Franklin College of Arts & Sciences

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