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HRC fellowship for research into effect of hookworm infection on intestinal barrier function

12 November 2021

The Malaghan Institute’s Dr Thomas Mules has received a Health Research Council of New Zealand Clinical Research Training Fellowship, worth $180,000 over two years, to investigate the effect of chronic hookworm infection on intestinal barrier function.

The fellowship is part of HRC’s annual career development awards to support New Zealand’s emerging researchers and frontline clinicians to undertake high-quality research and develop the skills to address current and future health challenges.

Dr Mules is a physician specialising in gastroenterology and a clinical consultant within the Malaghan Institute’s hookworm therapy programme. He is currently undertaking a PhD to research changes in intestinal barrier function during a hookworm infection and assess hookworm as a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

“It is becoming more and more evident that dysfunction in the intestinal barrier is linked to the rapidly increasing incidence of inflammatory, allergic, metabolic and neoplastic diseases, including IBD, colon cancer, obesity, fatty liver disease and dementia,” says Dr Mules.

He says the HRC award will allow him to gain a better understanding of intestinal barrier function immunology to find potential targets to treat these diseases, with a focus on the effect of human hookworm on intestinal barrier function.

“The elimination of the parasite human hookworm from improved sanitation may be linked to the world-wide increase in the prevalence of IBD and other autoimmune diseases.

“Infecting humans with hookworm appears to regulate the immune system and may reduce inflammation in IBD. My hypothesis is that hookworm exerts its beneficial effects through improvement in intestinal barrier function – and this is how it is providing its potential benefit in preventing and treating disease.”

Professor Graham Le Gros, who leads the Institute’s hookworm therapy programme, says the fellowship not only recognises Dr Mules’ expertise, track record and potential, but the therapeutic potential of human hookworms to ultimately find better treatment options for a wide range of disease.