Worm research catches the attention of pharmaceutical industry

Queensland Tropical Health Alliance (QTHA) researchers at James Cook University (JCU) and Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceutical Inc. (BI) will collaborate to develop novel therapeutics based on parasites for the treatment of a range of inflammatory diseases including inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. 

Researchers led by Professor Alex Loukas at the Centre for Biodiscovery and Molecular Development of Therapeutics at the James Cook University Cairns campus have identified a suite of molecules that parasitic hookworms secrete into the human gut while feeding on blood.  These proteins help the worms digest their blood meal but also prevent the immune system from flushing the worms out.  As a result, hookworms can survive for many years inside of the human body without invoking intense inflammation. 

"While hookworm parasites cause devastating disease in their own right, they do confer some level of protection against some of the inflammatory diseases that are associated with economically developed  nations.  In fact, clinical trials using carefully selected helminths under controlled settings have been shown to be beneficial for people with autoimmune or allergic diseases," Prof Loukas said.

The QTHA researchers have purified a family of anti-inflammatory proteins from the worm secretions and showed that synthetic versions of these proteins can protect mice against both inflammatory bowel diseases and asthma in experimental trials. 

The research has caught the attention of Dr Will Loging, Director of Knowledge Discovery at Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceutical Inc, based in America (BI).  JCU and BI have developed a collaboration to undertake development of these worm molecules as new therapeutics for treating human inflammatory diseases.

"BI will provide funding over 3 years to Prof Loukas' team to kick-start the collaboration and accelerate the development of these molecules towards clinical trials," said Dr Will Loging (BI).

"This is a wonderful example of a private-public-partnership model fostering collaboration, and business and industry development in the tropical sector, one of the aims of the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance," said Professor Ian Wronski, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Health and Molecular Science at James Cook University.

"JCU has expertise in the biodiversity and tropical infectious diseases, biodiscovery and the molecular development of therapeutics, comparative genomics, vascular disease, and underserved populations including Indigenous. Chronic diseases are found in people who live in all climates all over the world. This work will contribute to the health and well-being of people all over the world," said Professor Wronski.

Using worm therapy to combat modern diseases in Australia is the topic of the first in the series of free Science at the Salthouse lectures organised by James Cook University on July 25. Professor Alex Loukas will talk about the potential of treating inflammatory diseases with live parasitic worms and molecules derived from worm "saliva" to mimic the effect of a worm infection. 

18 July 2012

Download media release

web design by precedence