The people of sub-Sahara Africa may no longer need to fear the bite of the tsetse fly. In an April 24, 2014, Business Weekly article, “Net Closing On Serial Killer Parasite,” Kate Sweeney reported, “Cambridge genome scientists and international colleagues are closing in on new weapons to eradicate deadly diseases spread by the tsetse fly.”

According to the World Health Organization, tsetse flies, blood-sucking insects, transmit Trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness, as well as other diseases to humans and animals in over 30 African nations. Sleeping sickness initially causes joint stiffness, weakness and fever. Over time though, it results in neurological damage and eventually, death. If one identifies the disease early enough, there are drugs to cure sleeping sickness in its initial stages. In 2001, the World Health Organization initiated a large campaign against the disease via early detection and reduced the number of reported cases significantly. In 2010, the number of cases reported dropped below 10,000 for the first time in 50 years.

In 2014, scientists believe a better understanding of the tsetse fly will help eliminate African sleeping sickness completely. The Cambridge genome scientists contribute to a team of 146 scientists from 78 research institutes. The Business Weekly article stated that this international team, “analyzed the genome of the tsetse fly and its 12,000 genes that control protein activity.” This analysis found that tsetse flies have very actives tsal genes in their salivary glands that crave blood.

According to The New York Times’ article, “New Tool to Fight Deadly Tsetse Fly”, a team at Yale University, one of the 78 universities, “found several spots on the genome they hope will eventually lead to better insecticides or repellents.” When studying other insects, such as fruit flies and mosquitos, scientists created repellants after determining weaknesses in their genetic composition. Therefore, this new understanding of the tsetse fly’s tsal genes could lead to new repellant technologies.

As stated in the Huffington Post article, “Tsetse Fly Genome Decoded, May Hold Clues to Fighting African Sleeping Sickness” John Reeder, head of the World Health Organization’s program for research and training in tropical diseases, said, “Sleeping sickness threatens millions of people in 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the affected populations live in remote areas with limited access to adequate health services, which complicates the surveillance and therefore the diagnosis and treatment of cases.” His words illustrate the importance of tsetse fly genome decoding for Africa. A repellant or insecticide to fight tsetse flies would be a more feasible solution compared to the difficult detection of the disease and distribution of drugs to cure it in Africa.

– Jaclyn Ambrecht

Sources: The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Business Weekly, WHO