Leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease) is an infectious peripheral neurological disorder caused by Mycobacterium leprae that even today leaves millions of individuals worldwide with life-long disabilities. The specific mechanisms by which this bacterium induces nerve injury remain largely unknown, mainly owing to ethical and practical limitations in obtaining affected human nerve samples. In addition to humans, nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) are the only other natural host of M. leprae, and they develop a systemically disseminated disease with extensive neurological involvement. M. leprae is an obligate intracellular parasite that cannot be cultivated in vitro. Because of the heavy burdens of bacilli they harbor, nine-banded armadillos have become the organism of choice for propagating large quantities of M. leprae, and they are now advancing as models of leprosy pathogenesis and nerve damage. Although armadillos are exotic laboratory animals, the recently completed whole genome sequence for this animal is enabling researchers to undertake more sophisticated molecular studies and to develop armadillo-specific reagents. These advances will facilitate the use of armadillos in piloting new therapies and diagnostic regimens, and will provide new insights into the oldest known infectious neurodegenerative disorder.
- Received May 4, 2012.
- Accepted September 13, 2012.
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