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Scope 65 - An unexpected find: new pathways to target hookworm infection

4 May 2018

In the course of researching asthma, Malaghan scientists have identified a new target for hookworm therapy, based on the worm’s blood-feeding habits.

Published in PLOS Pathogens, the asthma, allergy and parasitic disease programme has identified the novel feeding pathway, which unlocks an exciting new area of research. With further experimentation, the discovery may one day help combat human hookworm infections, which affect over a billion people worldwide.

Traditionally, hookworms such as helminths have been considered to only start feeding on blood once they enter their hosts’ gut. However, postdoctoral researcher Tiffany Bouchery has demonstrated using a preclinical model of human hookworm infection that blood feeding occurs as soon as the worm enters the host’s body.

Post-doctoral research fellow Dr Kara Filbey (left) and project leader Mali Camberis (right)

“What we’ve found, quite unexpectedly, is that the worm starts blood feeding as soon as it enters the body, in the rst three days of infection,” says Professor Graham Le Gros.

“This insight could lead to new ways of targeting the species of hookworm that commonly infect humans, because once it is in the gut it’s very hard to deal with and causes a whole host of health issues.”

Prof Le Gros’ team were able to interrupt this blood feeding via anti-malarial drugs – preventing the worms from safely digesting the iron found in red blood cells. They have yet
to begin work to explore how this insight applies to human infection.

“While not what we set out to find, this piece of research is very exciting. In terms of its potential and where it could lead, improved therapies for people suffering from hookworm will be a major milestone in the fight against tropical diseases.

“It also gives us a deeper mechanistic insight into how other worms may be similarly affected when they rst start migrating into the body and how we might use this knowledge to work with worms to our advantage.”