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Scope 44 - Hooked on worms

26 April 2011

Prof Graham LeGros says that his scientific interests have been influenced by having lived in the tropics as a child, where he experienced first hand the debilitating effects of worm infection.

In addition to its higher profile research activities, the Malaghan Institute also has an innovative parasitology research programme headed by Prof Graham Le Gros and run in parallel to his asthma and allergy research. The Health Research Council funded parasitology research is dedicated to the development of a vaccine against human hookworm infection, one of the great neglected tropical diseases that keeps over a billion people in a state of poor health. Parasitology has a natural link with asthma and allergy 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, Prof 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 (see picture) and have recently had some of their groundbreaking work published in the prestigious international scientific Journal of Immunology. Their discovery, that specialised immune cells called basophils are the major producers of a protein that regulates the Th2 immune responses to parasitic worms, is an important development that will ultimately aid in vaccine design.

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