The Trypanosoma brucei sphingolipid synthase, an essential enzyme

John Mina, Ssu-Ying Pan, Nilu Kannangara Wansadhipathi-Kannangara, Catherine Bruce, Hosam Shams-Eldin, Ralph T Schwarz, Patrick G Steel, Paul W Denny

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Sphingolipids are important components of eukaryotic membranes, particularly the plasma membrane, and are involved in a diverse array of signal transduction processes. In the Eukaryota the biosynthetic pathway for the formation of these lipid species is largely conserved. However, in contrast to mammals which produce sphingomyelin (SM), several pathogenic fungi and protozoa synthesize inositol phosphorylceramide (IPC) as the primary phosphosphingolipid. This process is catalyzed by the enzyme IPC synthase, a recognized target for anti-fungals encoded by the AUR1 gene in yeast. Recently, functional orthologues of the AUR1p have been identified in a group of insect vector-borne pathogenic protozoa, the Kinetoplastida, which are responsible for a range of so-called neglected diseases. Of these the Trypanosoma brucei species are the causative agents of human African trypanosomiasis in many of the most under-developed regions of Africa. The available treatments for these diseases are limited, of decreasing efficacy, and often demonstrate severe side-effects. Against this background the T. brucei sphingolipid synthase, an orthologue of the yeast AUR1p, may represent a promising target for novel anti-protozoals. Our studies identify an isoform of this protein as a novel bi-functional enzyme capable of catalyzing the synthesis of both IPC and SM, both known to be present in the parasite. Furthermore, the synthase is essential for parasite growth and can be inhibited by a known anti-fungal at low nanomolar levels in vitro. Most notably this drug demonstrates trypanocidal activity against cultured bloodstream form parasites. Thus, the T. brucei sphingolipid synthase represents a valid and promising drug target.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-23
Number of pages8
JournalMolecular and Biochemical Parasitology
Issue number1
Early online date21 Jun 2009
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2009
Externally publishedYes


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