25 November 2016
An ancient Egyptian papyrus records the symptoms of hookworm infection: extreme anaemia, abdominal pains, heart palpitations. Fast-forward 3500 years and those same severe symptoms are found in more than half a million people worldwide, with the health of another 700 million affected by the parasite. Our goal is to help change that.
We study human hookworm using a mouse model, as well as researching the effects of parasitic worms on the immune system more broadly. The aim of this work is not only to find a better treatment for hookworm but to gain new knowledge about how worms dampen harmful immune responses towards them and ‘turn off’ allergy and autoimmune diseases at the same time.
As part of an ongoing collaboration, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children’s Hospital in the United States have invited us to test their new human hookworm vaccine candidates in our model. Today’s drugs kill hookworms in the intestine but a vaccine that targets the early blood-feeding phases is ideal. This approach would help reduce the associated anaemia as well as tackling the problem of reinfection with the worms after treatment.
Our model for human hookworm infection allows for much more flexibility in testing the dosage, timing and protection levels for developing a vaccine that is safe and effective. A number of promising targets have been sent to us and testing is now underway, alongside clinical trials happening overseas.
It is gratifying to be able to partner with the Sabin Vaccine Institute and contribute to its not-for-profit programme to get better therapies to people who are disabled by hookworm in the developing world. The gains are not just for individuals but have potential to increase the health status, intellectual capacity and economic output of entire countries.