Leading article: A stunning success in the fight against disease

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The Independent Online

Some of the biggest killers in the developing world are surprisingly obscure to many of us in the West. Most people will have probably heard of Aids and malaria. And they will have some idea that these diseases are responsible for an appalling number of deaths, especially in poorer countries. But people in the developed world are much less likely to have heard of Chagas' disease, leishmaniasis and sleeping sickness. Yet, together, these three diseases are responsible for an estimated 150,000 deaths each year. And more than half a billion people in the developing world are at substantial risk of contracting them.

There is a chronic shortage of safe, effective drugs to counter them. Melarsoprol, which has long been administered for sleeping sickness, contains arsenic. It ends up killing one in 20 of those who ingest it. Some doctors have compared taking it to playing Russian roulette.

These three diseases are also a huge impediment to economic development. Sleeping sickness is prevalent in 36 African countries and greatly depletes their workforces. There are other malign effects too. The animal strain of sleeping sickness results in £2bn-worth of cattle losses each year.

Therefore the news that scientists have taken a big step towards finding a cure for these three killers is enormously welcome. Yesterday it was announced that the genome of the parasites that cause them has been decoded. Since the code for the human genome was first sequenced five years ago, scientists have been attempting to apply the same techniques to curing diseases. This is one of the first big breakthroughs.

Gene sequencing is a relatively new approach to tackling illnesses. It allows scientists to view precisely how organisms are composed, down to their very fundamentals. It is the ultimate microscope. This new research will help scientists to design proteins to disable the parasites that cause afflictions such as sleeping sickness. The end result should be better drugs and more effective vaccines.

There will, of course, be no cure overnight. But we are unquestionably in a better position than we were. The genomic information has already been made available to scientists around the world so that no time is lost in developing a treatment.

What is especially heartening about this breakthrough is that it is a product of the international scientific community. When the global scientific community works towards a common goal, it can achieve stunning results. And those who benefit from the neutralising of these lethal diseases will be the whole of mankind.

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