A group of diseases that kill millions of people each year can't be touched by antibiotics, and some treatment is so harsh the patient can't survive it. They're caused by parasites, and for decades researchers have searched for a "magic bullet" to kill them without harming the patient. Now, a team of microbiologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has made an advance that could one day lead to a new weapon for fighting parasitic diseases such as African sleeping sickness, chagas disease and leishmaniasis.
In the cover article of the current issue of Eukaryotic Cell, parasitologists Michele Klingbeil, doctoral candidate Jeniffer Concepci-n-Acevedo and colleagues report the first detailed characterization of the way key proteins in the model parasite Trypanosoma brucei organize to replicate its mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Understanding this spatial and temporal coordination could mean a foot in the door to launch new attacks on one of the parasites' essential cell processes, Klingbeil says.
She adds, "Parasites such as T. brucei, which causes African sleeping sickness, are not straightforward to treat because they're too much like our own cells. Antibiotics are ineffective, so we treat them as invaders, with toxic chemicals. We are trying to find their weaknesses so we can exploit those and eventually develop a very selective, effective and acceptable treatment."
Advances have not come easily, in part because these parasites have the most complex mitochondrial genome structure in nature, say Klingbeil and Concepci-n-Acevedo, the lead researcher on the project. To tackle it, they've focused on the trypanosome parasites' extremely complex method of mtDNA replication, which involves kinetoplast DNA or kDNA. Its core components are very unlike DNA replication in animals and human hosts, Klingbeil says, "so if we can inhibit the replication process and take away the kDNA, the parasites will die. That's one way we might be able to kill them."
Trypanosomes' kDNA is found as a nucleoid in the mitochondrion, where it holds many copies of catenated or networked minicircles and maxicircles that look like medieval chain mail under the microscope. These molecules pass information on to daughter cells via DNA polymerases whose job it is to copy all circles in the network. Trypanosomes have six mtDNA polymerases, while humans have just one.