One of Scotland's leading research stations has been awarded more than £0.5m to tackle one of the world's most common and damaging parasites.
An interdisciplinary team from the UK and Brazil have been awarded the grant worth to help determine how disease caused by one of the most common parasitic infections in the world progresses in warm blooded animals, and how it is transmitted in food.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that can infect all warm-blooded animals, with up to a third of humanity potentially having been exposed. In particular, it can cause severe disease in pregnant women and those who are immune-compromised, and in sheep it is a major cause of abortion as is well-known in Scotland.
People and animals can become infected through ingestion of parasite eggs (oocysts) from cat faeces, ingestion of undercooked meat containing parasite cysts or from mother to foetus during pregnancy. Toxoplasmosis is now recognised as one of the most important foodborne diseases worldwide.
The joint three-year grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (BBSRC-FAPESP) will greatly improve understanding of foodborne transmission and the infectious nature of toxoplasmosis, and will aid related future research in vaccine design and drug discovery.
There is huge variation between different strains of the parasite regarding disease severity and the causes of this disparity are not known.Researchers said it was vital to develop new lab models to improve understanding of the infection process and the critical factors in involved in determining virulence.
The project, will be led by the Moredun Research Institute, working in collaboration with colleagues at University of São Paulo, in Brazil, Newcastle University.
Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland will use cells and 3D 'mini-guts' (fully functioning, lab-grown gut tissue) from different host species to develop a more relevant, host-specific system for determining the severity of infection by toxoplasma and predicting how the disease will progress.
The project will also assess the prevalence of it in a large study of retail meat samples in São Paulo, and the level of infectiousness of any parasites isolated from meat products can be assessed using the mini-guts to help determine the risk to public health.
Dr Clare Hamilton, Moredun Research Institute and the project lead, said: “This exciting, collaborative project will improve our understanding of toxoplasma virulence in different hosts which could help aid future vaccine development and control strategies.
"It also has the potential to develop new culture-based systems to assess infectivity and virulence of different parasite strains. I am delighted to be working with all of our partners and look forward to seeing the results of the next three years.”
Brazil is considered a hotspot for the parasite's genetic diversity, linked with a high occurrence of ocular toxoplasmosis in some regions of the country and severe cases of congenital toxoplasmosis.