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Popular Science: Leishmanias under microscope

Leishmania are single-celled protozoa not very well known in our country. In southern latitudes, however, it is a feared parasite that annually takes the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. This alarming fact has prompted European scientists to join together to control this epidemic. Research within the EuroLeish network happens to be taking place at the Faculty of Science - Charles University.


Picture of a bloodsucking sand fly by Jana Bulantová, Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Science.


Flagellates of the genus Leishmania are parasites found within the cells of various mammalian species (e.g. rodents, dogs or humans). The infection can manifest in various ways, depending on the species of leishmania. Species that attack epithelial tissues are very unpleasant but non-life-threatening. Of course, some leishmania infections represent a truly deadly risk to humans. More specifically, visceral leishmaniasis which attacks the internal organs is responsible for the death of up to 200,000 people annually, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). One species of leishmania responsible for the spread of this disease uses dogs as its major host. Research to enable early detection of these parasites is currently being conducted in Prague by Laura Willen, a young Belgian scientist who is part of the EuroLeish.net project.



Belgian scientist Laura Willen during a parasitology field course in Averoy, Norway.

A Belgian in Czech labs

Dogs are a reservoir for fatal leishmania infections that can also endanger people, especially children. Humans  can become infected from dogs through a vector, which  is exclusively the tiny sand fly of the species Phlebotomus or Lutzomyia. If a dog (or any other host, including a human) is repeatedly bitten by a sand fly, its immune system begins to produce antibodies  which recognize certain components of insect saliva and can be used as a diagnostic tool of sand fly exposure. Scientists are working with mixtures of salivary components, using methods of protein biochemistry to determine antigens which trigger an immune response of the bitten host. Such research, however, is labour- and time-consuming.



Picture of salivary glands attached to the head of a sand fly by Prof. Dr. Petr Volf, Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Science.

The future belongs to peptides

Along with her Czech colleagues from the laboratory of Prof. Petr Volf, Laura therefore focuses on finding a smarter way to identify whether a dog has been bitten by the sand fly or not. After collecting blood samples from a number of dogs from Italy, Portugal and Spain, she began examining whether the canine antibodies recognize recombinant salivary proteins. The goal was to find an antigen which reacts specifically with antibodies of dogs bitten by the vector. After a lengthy search, Laura found such a molecule: a protein coded rSPO3B. “In the future I would like to concentrate on preparing smaller parts of this molecule, peptides. These could be produced on a large scale to facilitate and hasten the development and use of diagnostic kits,” said Laura, looking to the future.




The research article can be found HERE.

Europeans against leishmania

Leishmania infections have long been “underestimated” as a disease. Thanks to the parasite’s strategy of hiding within the cells of its host, it has also proven to be a stubborn foe. Combating the disease is therefore extremely difficult and certainly beyond the means of individuals. That is why EuroLeish.net was created. This consortium brings together nine European top research facilities from scientifically advanced European countries (Germany, United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal and Czech Republic) together with 23 partnering institutions located in and outside of Europe. One of the participating facilities is the Department of Parasitology at Charles University - Faculty of Science. With support from the Marie-Curie Sklodowska Grant, 15 young researchers can spend time at various laboratories in this network and refine the results of their work. Research focuses on various topics associated with leishmania infections ranging from diagnostics to epidemiology and treatment.                                                                                                        


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement Nº 642609.





                                                                                                                                                Michal Andrle


Published: Nov 15, 2016 12:15 PM

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