Updated: Jun 20, 2018
Chagas disease is a chronic condition caused by a parasite common in the South and Central Americas. The parasite (Trypanosoma cruzi) is primarily transmitted by a blood-feeding bug called “kissing bug” or triatomine (kissing bug because they emerge at night and tend to feed on tissue around the eye and face). However, transmissions are also possible through contaminated food, contaminated blood transfusions, or it can be passed on from the mother to the fetus.
Prevention measures include bite prevention methods, education about the of routes of transmission, improving housing and sanitation, insecticides or traps, mosquito nets, blood bank testing, and screening of at risk populations.
It is estimated that approximately 10 million people in Latin America are infected. Symptoms develop depending on the two stages of infestation. In the first stage (first days to eight weeks) after the initial infection symptoms may include redness and swelling at the bite site, fever, swollen eyelid (often with red or purple discolorations), swollen lymphs, abdominal complaints, respiratory difficulties, and headaches for example.
In stage two, the condition is considered chronic. Here the parasite has settled in the muscles of the heart and gastrointestinal tract. Over time the parasite can cause degenerative damage to the heart, intestines, and nervous-system. End-stage patients often die of heart failure.
Sadly, current pharmaceutical treatments have a very limited effectiveness in the first stage only. Their effectiveness further decreases as the parasite settles. Drugs include nifurtimox, benznidazole, and sometimes allopurinol. Each of these are toxic drugs with significant adverse effects. Treatment costs depend on country and severity of disease and can be significant.
It wasn’t until recently that scientist brought a ray of hope to an otherwise dismal situation for many of the poorer populations of the Americas. Researchers from Mexico and Boliva tested the synergistic effects of the terpene lupenone and the cannabinoid/terpinoid caryophyllene (at ratios of 1:4 respectively) against the parasite.
Results of both, the laboratory phase and the animal experiment, showed that the synergistic effect of both plant-based compounds significantly reduced nesting in the heart and skeletal muscles of the test mice. Thus, if confirmed in human trials, we are closer to a new, safe, natural, cannabinoid-based and inexpensive option for the treatment of chagas disease in the chronic stage.
Glendy Polanco-Hernández, Fabiola Escalante-Erosa, Karlina García-Sosa, et al., “Synergistic Effect of Lupenone and Caryophyllene Oxide against Trypanosome cruzi.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2013, Article ID 435398, 6 pages, 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/435398
Picture credits: Boy with Chagas taken in Panama (1962) by CDC Dr. Mae Melvin. Kissing bug (Rodnius prolixus) by Dr. Edwin Huber, University of Manitoba (2009). Trypanosoma cruz (hindgut) CDC employee (2007).