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A professor in immunoparasitology at VUB’s Department of Applied Biological Sciences is currently leading the Centre for Biomedical Research at the Ghent University Global Campus in South Korea. And his major research focus is on a Sub-Saharan livestock disease. Confused? “The set-up and the research we do does require a bit of explanation,” Stefan Magez says with a laugh.
Text: Kim Hardie / Illustration: Pieter Van Eenoge
2014: UGent comes knocking on VUB’s door. The University of Ghent set up its Global Campus in Incheon as part of a South Korean plan to unite 10 universities from across the world. To complement the necessary expertise in biotechnology, UGent asked Magez to join as full professor in immunology and biochemistry. Now he combines research and teaching in South Korea with coordinating his research group at VUB, where he also teaches immunology and parasitology in the interuniversity master of science in molecular biology programme.
“Going to South Korea is like entering a science-fiction world. The advancements in technology are impressive and their way of thinking is different from the Western European way,” Magez says. “If they want to do something, they just do it. If it’s hard, they still do it, and if something fails, they fix it or just drop it. Their motto seems to be to do things ‘quickly’ (‘pali pali’ in Korean). I was there twice visiting a diagnostics company several years ago and I was blown away by what I saw. It lit the spark that fuelled my interest in the country, so I told myself that one day I’d come here to work. And in 2015 I did.” Magez supervises two postdoctoral researchers, seven PhD fellows (five in Korea, two in Brussels) and three VUB master’s students. Living and working in South Korea has been an interesting experience, he says. “The campus we are on was purpose-built on an artificial island. When it comes to doing research here, the focus is on investment and commerce, so people are incredibly service-minded”
An engineer doing research on a Sub-Saharan animal disease? “The topic of trypanosomiasis came to me by accident. In the late 1980s, a VUB researcher went to Kenya and got involved in trypanosomiasis research. They linked the topic back to VUB, and before I realised what the disease was actually about, I ended up doing my MSc in infectious disease immunology,” Magez recalls. “My PhD on the pathology of trypanosomiasis was a logical continuation. And it’s been my focus ever since, with research in South Africa, the US and now South Korea.” African trypanosomiasis is a parasitic disease transmitted by the tsetse fly that affects both humans and animals. Its nickname, sleeping sickness, comes from the symptoms, which include a disturbed sleep pattern. Magez’s research focuses on the animal variant, which can be severe and often fatal. It is prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and is believed to affect some 50 million livestock animals. Once the parasites infect the animal’s blood, it causes fever, weakness and lethargy, weight loss and anaemia, as well as a reduction in fertility and milk production. When smallholders’ cattle are hit by the disease, it has a major economic impact: an estimated 50-100% of animals can die within months of exposure. The total yearly cost of the disease is estimated to be $628 million*.
“Livestock and other domestic animals are more than just animals; they are the farmer’s ATM, they give the family standing in the community, and are a source of food and nutrition,” says Magez. “In particular, livestock represents assets to fund basic needs like housing, education, health and clothing. In other words, keeping their livestock healthy keeps the smallholders and their families healthy. The problem with animal tryps is diagnosis and prevention.” So what can be done and where does Magez’s work come in? While there is no vaccine available, development of new medicines to treat the disease is ongoing and a lot of work has gone into control measures at farms and in villages, to manage the vectors that transmit the parasites. But there is a lack of quality and regulatory control regarding the medicines, with an increasing number of counterfeits and substandard products hitting the market.
“We don’t fully know why vaccines against trypanosomes don’t work, but we’ve discovered that it’s partly due to the parasites’ destructive effect on the host’s immune system,” Magez explains. “They kill off the cells that make the antibodies and abort the immune system’s memory part, so the system needs to regenerate each time with new antibodies, and vaccines have no long-lasting effect. In other words, they are like immunosuppressants and wipe out the animal’s immune system.”
And then there is the diagnostic issue. There are different species of trypanosomes. Trypanosoma congolense is most commonly found in African domestic animals but also occurs in wild ones. The way forward seemed to be by using nanobodies for diagnostic development. As part of the VIB Structural Biology Research Centre, Magez led a group for four years looking into this. “We coordinated an EU network called NANOTRYP and later got funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assess new vaccination strategies for tryps. However, since we initiated the team in Korea in 2015, we’ve moved on to focus more on the development of new molecular diagnostics for human and animal pathogens. Five of my PhD students are now looking at fundamental aspects of immunopathology.” Animal tryps is hard to diagnose because its early symptoms can easily be confused with a host of other diseases. In recent years, flow tests – similar to pregnancy tests or blood sampling tests – have been developed to be used by farmers or vets for a relatively quick diagnosis. These still have their limitations, or they tend to be strain-specific.
In June 2018, however, Magez and his team published their research findings in Scientific Reports – part of the Nature publishing group – on the development of a nanobody-based test through paper-based devices to detect active Trypanosoma congolense infections. Most tests currently used do not meet the required standards. Magez and his team use nanobodies, which make the tests more accurate and have more versatility when it comes to using them in easy-to-use paper-based test kits. “We have developed the potential for such a test kit as a test-of-cure – a dip-stick, in other words. The aim is that such a test would be made available for free, with the treatment.”