Worms and our auto-immune system

14 Nov 2017

BBC World Services Crowd Science documentary series met with LCNTDR researchers to ask the question Can We Worm Our Way Into Better Health? The programme sought to understand the links between parasitic worms and immunological conditions like eczema, asthma and allergies.

Alongside research on how best to eradicate parasitic worm infections LCNTDR researchers are also at the forefront of research efforts to improve our understanding of these parasites and the impact that these diseases have on our auto-immune system.

A key part of this approach is understanding the genetic make-up of these worms and how they interact with and effect their human hosts. To do this documentary makers met with the Sanger Institute's Dr Matt Berriman.

Matt leads the Institute’s 50 Helminth Genomes Project  which is sequencing worm DNA to find out how they work. Out of the 80 varieties of worm the team has have sequenced over 1 million genes. Grouped together as gene families these genes provide insights into how these worms synthesis and excrete the complex proteins they need to live within their hosts.

The proteins found have been identified to reduce inflation of host’s intestine linings during the worms during feeding, or modify the surface of the worm to protect it from the host’s immune system. Knowledge of these proteins and what they do can then be then used to identify, develop and improve the tools and drugs we need to combat these parasites.  

On a visit to a deworming project in Tanzania the documentary interviewed LSHTM’s Professor Alison Elliott about her Lake Victoria Island Intervention Study on Worms and Allergy-0related Diseases (LaVIISWA)  and Entebbe Mother and Baby Study..

Alison’s research found that babies of mothers treated for worm infections were twice as likely to suffer from excemia compared to babies of mothers that had not been treated.

The documentary highlights the need for more research to be done to identify the link between these parasites and auto-immune responses.

Alongside Matt Berriman and Alison Elliott, LCNTDR members are seeking to improve our knowledge of immunological impact of NTDS including trachoma, leprosy and yaws.  

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