Could a 100-Year-Old Sleep Sickness Drug Reverse Autism Symptoms?
byKaitlin StanfordJun 23, 2014
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto
A century ago, scientists toiled away in a lab to create suramin, a drug which at the time was intended to treat sleep sickness. Fast-forward 100 years later, and scientists are taking a second look at the sleep sickness drug — and the surprising effects it's having on mice.
In a recent study, which was conducted by the University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, researchers found that suramin actually reversed many symptoms of autism in mice, restoring normal cellular behavior. But here's the catch: the effects only lasted about five weeks. After that, the mice once again displayed symptoms of the developmental disorder.
But according to Medical News Today, the research is still pretty groundbreaking, expanding on the theory that autism is caused by "a variety of interconnected factors."
"Twenty percent of the known factors associated with autism are genetic, but most are not," senior study author Dr. Robert K. Naviaux, explained to MNT. Naviaux is a professor of medicine, pediatrics and pathology, as well as co-director of the Mitochondrial and Metabolic Disease Center at UCSD.
That being said, we can't look at environmental factors and genetic factors as separate from one another. "Genes and environmental factors interact," he continued. "The net result of this interaction is metabolism."
"The discovery that a single dose of medicine can fundamentally reset metabolism for weeks means that newer and safer drugs might not need to be given chronically," he said.
Suramin was first synthesized in 1916 to treat trypanosomiasis — otherwise known as African sleeping sickness, which is a parasitic disease. But while Dr. Naviaux acknowledges that "correcting abnormalities in a mouse is a long way from a cure in humans," he points out that it's a brand new way of looking at and thinking about the challenges of autism, and how to treat them.
There are some other hiccups with the drug, though. Namely, the fact that it cannot be given over an extended period of time, since it's been known to cause anemia and adrenal gland dysfunction. Still, according to Dr. Naviaux, these findings are strong enough to launch the first phase of a clinical trial with children later this year, in the hopes of learning more.