Finding worms for cures and cures for worms

James Cook University researcher and Queensland Tropical Health Alliance affiliate, Professor Alex Loukas described the discovery of vaccines against two of the most crippling diseases of the tropics, hookworm and schistosomiasis which, together, infect hundreds of millions of people, kill hundreds of thousands and affect the learning and working capacities of untold millions.


These worms depend on their host's blood for growth, development and reproduction. Hookworms suck and digest blood and, through this truly groundbreaking research, Professor Loukas and his team have shown that the pathways that these parasites use for this can be turned against them, as targets for vaccines. Meanwhile schistosome worms live in blood and, in a Queensland Tropical Health Alliance Endorsed Project, Professor Loukas' team have applied innovative techniques to discover how these parasites survive in this normally hostile environment. A promising potential vaccine against schistosomiasis is the result.


Paradoxically, hookworms might also be useful in helping us control autoimmune diseases, another focus of interest for Professor Loukas. "Worms present a conundrum. In developing countries they cause death and morbidity, but autoimmune and allergic diseases relatively uncommon, whilst in developed countries, where autoimmunity/allergy are "endemic", some of us might benefit from a few worms - as long as we have good nutrition, and not too many worms, they may actually be beneficial", Professor Loukas said, "and that leads to the idea that worm molecules may be potential anti-inflammatory therapies".


This research will impact significantly on how we think about controlling a number of parasites that depend on the digestion of blood for their growth, development and reproduction and cause serious diseases in humans and animals.

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