Health News Roundup: secrets of parasitic worms revealed

Health News Roundup: secrets of parasitic worms revealed

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LONDON: The largest study to date of the genetic makeup of parasitic worms has found hundreds of new clues about how they invade the human body, evade its immune system and cause disease.

Even as alcohol and tobacco use continue to decline among pregnant women in the U.S., a new study offers fresh evidence that more American mothers are using cannabis during pregnancy. Other recent studies have also documented a rise in cannabis use among pregnant women of all ages, with some evidence of particularly sharp increases for teens and young adults. For the current study, researchers analyzed the proportion of pregnant women who used alcohol, tobacco or cannabis from 2002 to 2016.

The results point to potential de-worming treatments to help fight some of the most neglected tropical diseases – including river blindness, schistosomiasis and hookworm disease – which affect around a billion people worldwide.

“Parasitic worms are some of our oldest foes and have evolved over millions of years to be expert manipulators of the human immune system,” said Makedonka Mitreva of Washington University’s McDonnell Genome Institute, who co-led the work with colleagues from Britain’s Wellcome Sanger Institute and Edinburgh University.

She said the results of this study would lead to both a deeper knowledge of the biology of parasites and a better understanding of how human immune systems can be harnessed or controlled.

Parasitic worm infections can last many years and can cause severe pain, physical disabilities, retarded development in children and social stigma linked to deformity.

Current medicines to combat them – including drugs made by Sanofi, GSK and Johnson & Johnson – can be moderately effective and are often donated by drugmakers or sold at cut-down prices to those who need them. But the spectrum of drugs to treat worm infections is still limited.

To try to improve the potential drug pipeline and to understand how worms invade and take up residence inside humans and other animals, the research team compared the genomes of 81 species of roundworms and flatworms, including 45 that had never previously had their genomes sequenced.

The analysis found almost a million new genes that had not been seen before, belonging to thousands of new gene families, and identified many new potential drug targets and drugs.

“We studied by looking at existing drugs for human illnesses,” said the Sanger Institute’s Avril Coghlan, who worked on the team. She said this offered a possible fast-track route “to pinpointing existing drugs that could be repurposed for deworming”.

Millions of women and babies could avoid untimely deaths if international donors step up to replenish a global health fund so it can expand to 50 countries, the philanthropist Melinda Gates said on Tuesday. The co-chair of the multi-billion-dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told Reuters she and her husband see the Global Financing Facility (GFF), a fund aimed specifically at maternal, newborn and child health, as an investment in “human capital” that will swiftly show meaningful, measurable results.

The largest study to date of the genetic makeup of parasitic worms has found hundreds of new clues about how they invade the human body, evade its immune system and cause disease. The results point to potential de-worming treatments to help fight some of the most neglected tropical diseases – including river blindness, schistosomiasis and hookworm disease – which affect around a billion people worldwide.

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