article

   
   

Scientists shed infrared light on brain-eating parasite to pave way for new treatment

Friday, 24 May 2019

Important new clues about how a common parasite found in cat faeces invades the human brain have been revealed by a team of scientists, using cutting-edge infrared microspectroscopy analysis.

Up to a third of the world’s population is infected with Toxoplasma gondii – a microscopic, single-celled parasite which can be passed from animals to humans through ingestion of poorly cooked meat or exposure to infected cat faeces.

The parasite can cause toxoplasmosis – a potentially dangerous infection, particularly in pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals (e.g. AIDS). It also causes eye problems and has even been linked with schizophrenia.

The research is front page story on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal, Analytical Method.

Light microscopic graph showing a bunch of human cerebrovascular endothelial cells riddled with parasites growing within them.

Widespread worldwide infection

Parasitologist, Dr Hany Elsheikha, from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, said: “Toxoplasma gondii is an extremely nasty parasite and although it can be latent in many people with no obvious ill effects, it can be life-changing and life-threatening in certain cases. At the moment there is no vaccine and the anti-parasite drug arsenal is limited so we were very keen to investigate new potential avenues for early detection and better treatment for patients infected with this deadly parasite.

“Interaction between host cell and Toxoplasma gondii parasite is a spectacular feat of bioengineering, wherein complex networks of metabolic pathways are hijacked by the parasite to promote its own growth, which is amazingly orchestrated. The pathways and molecules identified in our study play key roles in host cell physiology and responses to challenges by this parasite."

Our findings lay the groundwork for the discovery of novel therapeutics to slow the progression of infection and enhance host immune defences by controlling key metabolic pathways.
Dr Hany Elsheikha
Diamond Light Source, Oxfordshire

Under the infrared spotlight

Dr Gianfelice Cinque, Principal Beamline Scientist for the Multimode InfraRed Microscopy And Imaging (MIRIAM) beamline B22 at Diamond Light source, said: “Using Diamond synchrotron radiation for infrared spectroscopy (microFTIR), a much brighter light than in conventional IR microscopes is delivered at the sample. This provides a much more sensitive microanalysis of biological cell machinery and specific molecular fingerprinting of the infection process at single cell resolution.

“I am very happy that our beamline teamwork has helped to address such an important medical challenge to improve understanding of the biochemical changes that occur in the blood brain barrier endothelium between a few hours and up to 2 days after Toxoplasma gondii infection. This critical information has revealed important molecular events required to shape a permissive cell microenvironment for growth and survival of Toxoplasma gondii. This research outcome and the use of IR microanalysis method could be exported and help with other types of brain disease.” 

School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham

The study has shown that microFTIR analysis is a highly effective tool to reveal any biological and chemical changes within infected cells as the parasite replicates in the host.

The findings provide new insights into how Toxoplasma gondii remodels the biochemical composition and metabolism of the host cells it infects, by decreasing the protein and increasing the lipid and nucleic acid content of infected host cells.

This could be considered a step forward towards the development of infrared biomarkers as a quantitative, highly molecular sensitive and specific way of characterising biomedical tissue and health status of patients.

Story credits

More informationis available from Dr Hany Elsheikha via email hany.elsheikha@nottingham.ac.uk

Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager, Faculty of Arts
Email: emma.rayner@nottingham.ac.uk
Phone: 0115 748 4413
Location:

Our academics can now be interviewed for broadcast via our Media Hub, which offers a Globelynx fixed camera and ISDN line facilities at University Park campus. For further information please contact a member of the Communications team on +44 (0)115 951 5798, email  pressoffice@nottingham.ac.uk or see the Globelynx website for how to register for this service.

For up to the minute media alerts, follow us on Twitter

Notes to editors:

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named both Sports and International University of the Year in the 2019 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 25 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer, proud of our Athena SWAN silver award, and a key industry partner- locally and globally.

Media Relations - External Relations

The University of Nottingham
C Floor, Pope Building (Room C4)
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5798
email: pressoffice@nottingham.ac.uk