By Rebecca Hall
Human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), more commonly known as sleeping sickness, is a disease caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma. Endemic in 36 sub-Saharan African countries, HAT causes fever, headaches, joint pain and, once the parasite has crossed the blood-brain barrier, the characteristic sleep cycle disturbances that give the condition its colloquial name. Trypanosomes have a complex life cycle, residing partly inside its tsetse fly host and infecting mammals in a separate stage. The adaptations that the parasite has undergone in order to thrive inside humans enable it to evade the immune system; by ‘putting on’ a unique ‘coat’ of glycoproteins, trypanosomes ensure that the immune cells cannot keep up with its disguises. As such, developing drugs to combat sleeping sickness and nagana, its equivalent in cattle, is a complex and frequently unsuccessful process.
The drugs that are available currently to treat HAT are limited by a risk of toxicity and are not always effective. There is also increasing concern that resistance may arise and so there is a lot of interest in teasing out the biology of trypanosomes, with transport and metabolism being one key area. The hope is that they may be able to find new therapeutic targets by identifying essential components of the parasite.
Amino acid uptake is hugely important for trypanosomes. When they transition from mammalian to insect host they are required to adapt to very different environments. Blood is the sole diet of the tsetse and therefore the parasite must be able to survive on amino acids as their energy source when they are in this stage of their life cycle. They are also auxotrophic for a number of amino acids, meaning they cannot produce them themselves and instead rely on importing them to survive. The transporters for these therefore provide a potential drug target; block the ability to uptake essential metabolites and the parasite will die.
A paper published in early January describes two transporters that could become potential therapeutic targets. Mathieu et al. looked at two amino acids, arginine and lysine, that are essential for trypanosome survival. They identified candidate transporters by constructing a phylogenetic tree and transformed them into Saccharomyces cerevisiae mutants. These mutants were unable to uptake different amino acids and so the group were able to establish what these proteins transported by assessing the ability of the mutants to grow on various substrates. They identified transporters that enabled growth on lysine and arginine in strains of S. cerevisiae that would otherwise have been unable to grow.
The team then used transport assays to reveal that these transporters have both high affinity and selectivity for their substrates. Transcriptomics suggested that they are highly expressed and analysis of cMyc-tagged trypanosomes indicated that these transporters localise in the plasma membrane. They finally assessed the essentiality of these proteins by down-regulating their expression through RNA interference and found that growth of these parasites was significantly reduced.
These transporters are therefore interesting therapeutic candidates because of the reliance of the trypanosome on them for survival. Importantly, these are not related to uptake systems in humans and so any drug that worked against them would not run the risk of off-target effects.
Source: Arginine and lysine transporters are essential for Trypanosoma brucei, Mathieu et al. (2017), PLOS ONE