Parasitic Diseases

The immune system is exquisitely designed for defending the body from external infections ranging from the smallest viruses to very large parasitic worms.

A microscope image of a parasite moving through the hairs on skin

Hookworm is a gastrointestinal helminth parasite. It is a leading cause of morbidity in developing countries affecting one billion people worldwide.

Human hookworm infection is currently controlled through frequent use of antihelminthic drugs in school-age children, however, high rates of re-infection occur soon after treatment and there is evidence of emerging drug resistance.

One interesting trend observed when communities are able to prevent helminth parasitism is that the incidence of allergies to harmless envirionmental allergens progressively begins to rise.

The role of gastrointestinal helminth parasites in regulating the immune regulatory functions mediated by the gut has become a focus of recent research attention.

Professor Graham Le Gros and colleagues seek to discover the mechanisms by which helminth parasites can suppress the sensitisation phase of the allergic immune response, with a view to guiding the design of novel therapies for treating both allergic diseases and other chronic inflammatory conditions.

In parallel to this work is a parasitology research programme dedicated to the development of a vaccine against human hookworm infection – one of the great neglected tropical diseases that keeps a billion people worldwide in a state of poor health. Parasitology has a natural link with allergic diseases because they both use the same Th2 immune response pathways.

Since vaccination is currently viewed as the only long-term solution to preventing human hookworm infection, Professor Le Gros' research team has been working hard to identify putative targets both for vaccine design and for testing the vaccine's effectiveness in the field. To do this they are studying immune responses to a harmless rodent model of human hookworm called Nippostrongylus brasiliensis and have had their findings and methodologies published in several high impact scientific journals over the past year.

This research represents a significant contribution to the global vaccine initiative against human hookworm that New Zealanders can be proud of.

We would like to acknowledge the following organisations and individuals for supporting our research programmes:

Foundation for Research, Science & Technology, Health Research Council of New Zealand, Maurice Wilkins Centre, New Zealand Lottery Health Research, The Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund, University of Otago, Wellington Medical Research Foundation

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