Neutralising the tsetse fly that spreads infectious disease in Africa is a major research project in Europe and we filmed how it’s being done.
Tsetse flies are the blood sucking insects that transmit the potentially fatal sleeping sickness disease and are usually found in Sub-Saharan Africa. But a large colony can currently be found at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in the historic city of Antwerp in Belgium.
Professor Jan van den Abbeele is genetically modifying the flies to neutralise the disease spreading parasites that live within them.
The tsetse fly feed off large mammals, including humans. They are responsible for transmitting several diseases – including sleeping sickness – by passing on tiny parasites in their saliva. The tiny parasites feed on red blood cells.
Congo is one of the main countries in the world where sleeping sickness is found. We filmed at the hospital in Dipumba in the eastern Congo, where under-equipped doctors are fighting a losing battle against the disease. 70,000 people are currently infected with sleeping sickness world wide. If untreated, it causes anaemia and organ damage. If the parasite gets into the central organ system, it disrupts sleep patterns ad leads to confusion in its victims. By this stage it’s untreatable and leads to certain death.
The parasites are transmitted when they bite through the skin to get at the blood. But the parasite is not the only organism living inside the fly. Jan and his colleagues have identified another that they believe can be turned into a deadly weapon against the parasite. A foreign gene is added to the DNA of the bacteria, which makes it produce a particular nanobody, a tiny protein particle that organisms use to destroy alien cells. These nanobodies attach themselves to the parasite and kill them. So by genetically modifying the fly, the scientists can customize its immune system.
The modified bacteria is injected back into the fly. Any parasites will now be killed. Eventually the parasite resistant flies could be released into the natural world. They’ll them be free to breed and spread their parasite fighting bacteria.
The research in Antwerp looks promising, but it’s at an early stage. Releasing anything genetically modified into the wild is always controversial. But the tsetse bacteria can only survive within the fly, so it cannot be passed on to other living things. So it’s just possible that the tsetses of Antwerp could be the start of a genetic revolution that could finally put an end to sleeping sickness.