Scientists at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine have received a $4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to outwit the deadly tsetse fly. The fly is responsible for transmitting human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), better known as sleeping sickness, a disease which kills 60,000 people every year.
Working with an international consortium, the Liverpool team - headed by molecular entomologist Professor Mike Lehane - will use the grant to develop attractants and repellents aimed at the tsetse fly’s sense of smell. By focussing on the smells which the flies like and dislike, the team aims to develop better attractants for insect traps and better repellents to prevent flies biting humans. For example, tsetse flies actively avoid the odour given off by some animals, so by identifying and replicating this odour it should be possible to develop a more effective repellent for use in personal protection products such as sprays which will deter the fly from biting and thus spreading the disease.
The team will first identify the scents which attract and repel the blood-sucking vector. The molecular make-up of these odours will then be tested to identify the molecules within them which alert the fly¹s antennae. Commercial sources of the odours can then be sourced and used in either insect traps or personal protection products. Suitable low technology release systems will then be developed for use in African control campaigns.
Five major species of the palpalis group of tsetse fly currently transmit the disease, which is endemic in 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, putting some 60 million people at risk.
Professor Lehane said: “Drug treatment of HAT is in a parlous state. The drugs available were developed many years ago and their toxicity and consequent human mortality, allied to the increasing resistance to the drugs, are very serious concerns.
“Tsetse control currently relies on insecticides which are usually delivered by aerial or ground spraying, which is costly, raises environmental concerns and is inefficient. Protection by personal repellents would reduce the individual¹s dependence on small scale community spraying projects or large scale Government and donor funded interventions. This could be highly valuable to people in isolated areas that cannot benefit from community programmes,” he added.
LSTM scientists have also received a grant of €2.5 million from the European Commission (EC) to run parallel with the Gates Foundation grant. This will enable Professor Lehane and Dr Martin Donnelly to investigate how tsetse flies are distributed in Africa and whether they move from place to place - information that is vital to planning effective control campaigns.
Said Professor Lehane: “These grants will help greatly in our search for cost effective means of controlling tsetse flies which cause such devastation across so much of sub-Saharan Africa."
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