Researchers have been awarded a grant to help determine how disease caused by a parasite progresses in warm-blooded animals, and how it is transmitted in food.

A team from the United Kingdom and Brazil were given funding of around £500,000 ($650,000) from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (BBSRC-FAPESP).

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that can infect all warm-blooded animals. It may cause severe disease in pregnant women and immuno-compromised. People and animals become infected through the ingestion of parasite eggs (oocysts) from cat feces, eating undercooked meat containing parasite cysts, or from mother to fetus during pregnancy. Toxoplasmosis is one of the most important foodborne diseases worldwide.

The project is led by the Moredun Research Institute working with the University of São Paulo in Brazil, Newcastle University and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland.

Boost knowledge on foodborne transmission
The three-year grant will help improve understanding of foodborne transmission and the infectious nature of Toxoplasma gondii, and aid-related future research in vaccine design and drug discovery.

There is variation in disease severity between different strains of the parasite with Toxoplasma gondii strains from South America known to cause more serious disease compared to those found in other parts of the world. The reasons why some strains are more severe than others is not known and developing laboratory models will improve understanding of the infection process and the critical factors involved in determining virulence.

Dr. Clare Hamilton, of Moredun Research Institute and project lead, said: “This…project will not only improve our understanding of Toxoplasma virulence in different hosts which could help aid future vaccine development and control strategies, but it also has the potential to develop new culture based systems to assess infectivity and virulence of different parasite strains.”

The project will use cells and 3D “mini-guts” (fully functioning, lab-grown gut tissue) from different species to develop a host-specific system for determining the severity of infection by Toxoplasma gondii and predicting how the disease will progress.

Study of meat sold at retail in Brazil
It will also assess the prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii in a 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. Hilda Fátima de Jesus Pena, from the University of São Paulo, said Brazil is considered a hotspot for Toxoplasma gondii genetic diversity.

“This diversity is linked with a high occurrence of ocular toxoplasmosis in some regions of the country and severe cases of congenital toxoplasmosis. In general, seroprevalence to the parasite is high all over the country both in human and animal populations,” she said.

“This project will be a great opportunity to investigate Toxoplasma gondii strains and their viability in different types of meat consumed by the population of São Paulo, the largest city of South America in terms of its population and economy.”

Toxoplasmosis does not usually lead to any symptoms and most people do not realize they’ve had it. Some people get flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature, aching muscles, tiredness, feeling sick, sore throat, and swollen glands that last for weeks to months and then go away. Once you’ve had toxoplasmosis you cannot catch it again.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)