Newly discovered protein blocks sleeping sickness

Newly discovered protein blocks sleeping sickness

Wednesday 27 February - Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), or sleeping sickness, is a neglected tropical disease that affects millions of people and is fatal if left untreated. Most treatments and preventative options, however, are not very effective. New research by the lab of Prof. Jo Van Ginderachter (VIB Center for Inflammation Research and VUB), in collaboration with Prof. Carl De Trez (VUB) and others, identifies a protein that could pave the way toward drugs against sleeping sickness. Their work appears in Nature Communications.

Sleeping sickness evades the immune system

Hitchhiking in the gut and mouthparts of the tsetse fly, microscopic parasites known as trypanosomes can cause fatal disease in mammals, including humans. In Sub-Saharan Africa, trypanosomes that infect humans cause sleeping sickness or Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT). A similar disease in livestock is known as nagana or Animal African Trypanosomiasis (AAT).

Sleeping sickness is recognized by the World Health Organization as a neglected tropical disease, which affects millions and has high mortality rates. It is also a disease that shows a limited response to medication and for which no vaccine exists. After millions of years of evolution, trypanosomes have gained the ability to effectively escape detection by the immune system and stop potential immune responses in their tracks. How the parasites do this is still largely a mystery.

Prof. Benoit Stijlemans, first author of the study: “We know that other protozoan parasites use proteins similar to a mammalian protein called Macrophage Migration Inhibitory Factor (MIF) to manipulate the immune system of their victims. So, we went looking for a MIF equivalent in the genomes of trypanosomes that promotes sleeping sickness.”

A protein that stops trypanosomes

But a protein similar to MIF was not what the researchers found.

Prof. Jo Van Ginderachter, senior author of the study: “We did not find a MIF homolog in the trypanosome genome, but we did identify another protein that had interesting structural characteristics, called Q586B2.”

Deleting the gene coding for that protein from the parasite’s genome led to a lower parasite burden in the blood of infected lab mice, as well as prolonged the animals’ survival. This deletion also promoted the differentiation of the parasite into a short stumpy form, which might account for the lower parasite burden. The researchers used their new knowledge to develop two therapeutic strategies for sleeping sickness: a nanobody that blocks the action of Q586B2 designed with the help of the VIB Nanobody Core, and immunization with the protein. For both strategies, this results in a lower parasite burden and longer survival.

Prof. Jo Van Ginderachter: “The Q586B2 protein is not unique to trypanosomes. It could be the missing piece to develop a broad-spectrum intervention strategy for human diseases such as sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis, and Chagas disease as well as veterinary and economically relevant diseases such as nagana.”


Stijlemans et al. Q586B2 is a crucial virulence factor during the early stages of Trypanosoma brucei infection that is conserved amongst trypanosomatids. Nature Communications, 2024.


This work was supported by the VUB Strategic Research Program, FWO, NIH, FNRS, University of Antwerp, and KU Leuven.

Press Contact
Joran Lauwers
​Press Officer
​+32 478 99 33 98

Nathalie Vlaemynck
Nathalie Vlaemynck TIJDELIJK AFWEZIG - Woordvoerder en algemeen perscontact


About Press - Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Vrije Universiteit Brussel is an internationally oriented university in Brussels, the heart of Europe. By providing excellent research and education on a human scale, VUB wants to make an active and committed contribution to a better society.

The World Needs You

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel assumes its scientific and social responsibility with love and decisiveness. That’s why VUB launched the platform De Wereld Heeft Je Nodig – The World Needs You, which brings together ideas, actions and projects based on six Ps. The first P stands for People, because that’s what it’s all about: giving people equal opportunities, prosperity, welfare, respect. Peace is about fighting injustice, big and small, in the world. Prosperity combats poverty and inequality. Planet stands for actions on biodiversity, climate, air quality, animal rights... With Partnership, VUB is looking for joint actions to make the world a better place. The sixth and last P is for Poincaré, the French philosopher Henri Poincaré, from whom VUB derives its motto that thinking should submit to nothing except the facts themselves. VUB is an ‘urban engaged university’, strongly anchored in Brussels and Europe and working according to the principles of free research.


Press - Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Pleinlaan 2
1050 Brussel