SCOTTISH scientists have launched a £2.5 million project to design new drugs for sleeping sickness, which threatens almost 70 million people in Africa.

Scientists hope to come up with novel treatments to fight the virus which attacks the nervous system and can plunge people into comas, organ failure and death.

It is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly and is prevalent in west and central Africa.

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Existing medicines for the disease can cause debilitating side-effects or can be fatal. Some drugs must be administered using a drip, which makes treatment time-consuming and expensive. Researchers hope to develop safe, effective medicines that can be given easily.

The quest for new treatments will build on previous studies about how the infection occurs. Scientists have shown that the parasite is able to survive in the bloodstream by using enzymes to convert blood sugars into the energy it needs to stay alive. They have identified potential drug-like compounds that can stop two of these enzymes from functioning, so killing the parasite.

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, working with the international life sciences contract research body Selcia, will design and develop drugs based on these drug-like compounds.

Their aim is to design a drug that will be effective in small doses, and will work even on advanced infections. The 30-month project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will seek to test the compounds in the lab and in mice, ahead of further studies that could involve human trials.