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24 Dec 2011 04:35 AM

Do Our Medicines Boost Pathogens?


Scientists of the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITG) discovered a parasite that not only had developed resistance against a common medicine, but at the same time had become better in withstanding the human immune system. With some exaggeration: medical practice helped in developing a superbug. For it appears the battle against the drug also armed the bug better against its host. "To our knowledge it is the first time such a doubly armed organism appears in nature", says researcher Manu Vanaerschot, who obtained a PhD for his detective work at ITG and Antwerp University. "It certainly makes you think."



Vanaerschot studies the Leishmania parasite, a unicellular organism that has amazed scientists before. Leishmania is an expert in adaptation to different environments, and the only known organism in nature disregarding a basic rule of biology: that chromosomes ought to come in pairs. (The latter was also discovered by ITG-scientists recently.)



The parasite causes Leishmaniasis, one of the most important parasitic diseases after malaria. It hits some two million people, in 88 countries - including European ones - and yearly kills fifty thousand of them. The parasite is transmitted by the bite of a sand fly. The combined resistance against a medicine and the human immune system emerged in Leishmania donovani, the species causing the deadly form of the disease.



On the Indian subcontinent, where most cases occur, the disease was treated for decades with antimony compounds. As was to be expected, the parasite adapted to the constant drug pressure, and evolved into a form resisting the antimonials. In 2006 the treatment was switched to another medicine, because two patients out of three did not respond to the treatment. The antimonials closely work together with the human immune system to kill the parasite. This probably has given Leishmania donovani the opportunity to arm itself against...
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