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Sanofi-Institut Pasteur 2014 Awards honors the research that put sleeping sickness to bed.

For the third consecutive year, the 13th of November the Sanofi-Institut Pasteur award  honored four internationally renowned researchers for their work impacting world health. We, at Wax-science –  an association that promotes a science without stereotypes and gender inequality – had the opportunity to meet Professor Etienne Pays , awardee in the senior research category  for his work on the trypanosome, the parasite causing sleeping sickness.

Etienne Pays, parasitologist at the Université libre de Bruxelles who leads the research on human African trypanosomiasis.

“I will try to make an effort to be understandable,” said M. Pays as an introduction “But as soon as I speak about trypanosome, I tend to get carried away!” For more than an hour, the researcher from the Université Libre de Bruxelles shared with an infectious enthusiasm his fascination for the defense mechanisms of the parasite, and more precisely for its rhodiense and gambiense strains that are responsible for human sleeping sickness.

According to the Belgium researcher, the trypanosome is an “ultimate parasite”, a kind of super mutant that has the unique capacity to repeatedly and indefinitely modify the characteristics of its antigens so that the body can never identify them and create the appropriate antibodies to destroy them.

In 2003, the team of Etienne Pays at the Université Libre de Bruxelles had discovered that if humans can resist these types of pathogens thanks to a protein called apoL1, the rhodiense and gambiense version of our “ultimate parasite” have progressively developed an ability to resist it. But after almost a decade of meticulous research, Prof Pays and his team finally developed a mutant strain of ApoL1 that kills all African trypanosome.

Prof Pays said: “All my life I will remember this evening when I was at home studying the data and, suddenly, I realized we had discovered something. It was as if God was telling me ‘I know I speak Hebrew, but there’s something I’m trying to tell you here’. For a moment, I was thrilled to be the only one in the world to know we had found something”.

False colour SEM micrograph of procyclic form Trypanosoma brucei as found in the tsetse fly midgut.
False colour SEM micrograph of procyclic form Trypanosoma brucei as found in the tsetse fly midgut.

The promising discovery published in Nature in June 2014 and honored by the Sanofi-Institut Award may be of major importance. It is a crucial step for global health but also for the African continent’s development. The awardee is firmly convinced that the sleeping disease that also affects animal is the main reason why it is impossible to raise cattle in central Africa.

However, for now the WHO considers that the vaccines would be too expensive to implement a large-scale program. Prof Pays reacts with fatalism: “You know, I am doing fundamental research, sometimes I found something, and I am happy if it is usefull and that people are interested, but if people are not interested, I just keep on doing research”.

If Prof Pays is about to retire, his team has still a lot to discover about this “molecular arm race between the parasites and the host”. Indeed, they realized that the protein apoL1 may be responsible for kidney diseases and paradoxically, the trypanosome and its capacity to fight the apoL1 may be the key to find a cure against kidney sclerosis!

Written by Margaux Calon

Margaux graduated in History of Innovation at Paris IV-La Sorbonne and defended a master research thesis on “Science popularisation in the press for children, 1830 – 1930”. She travelled around the world of science communication as an intern for a year before entering a MSC Science Communication at Imperial College London. She’s now a community manager and science communication officer at the CRI.

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