Researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have for the first time identified a 'programmed cell death' pathway in parasitic worms that could one day lead to new treatments for one of the world's most serious and prevalent diseases.
Dr Erinna Lee and Dr Doug Fairlie from the institute's Structural Biology division study programmed cell death (also called apoptosis) in human cells. They have recently started studying the process in schistosomes, parasitic fluke worms responsible for the deadly disease schistosomiasis.
Dr Lee said that the group has shown that, unexpectedly, the cell death machinery that exists in fluke worms is remarkably similar to the cell death pathway in human cells. The finding was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
"We found that schistosomes have a complex cell death mechanism that relied on a delicate balancing act of pro-survival and pro-death molecules, just like in humans," Dr Lee said. "Using the Australian Synchrotron, we also determined that the three-dimensional structure of a key schistosome cell death molecule was very similar to the protein which controls the process in humans. This structure is important because it will potentially guide future efforts to design drugs that target the schistosome cell death pathway."
More than 700 million people worldwide are at risk of schistosomiasis and 200 million people are currently infected, 85 per cent of whom live in Africa. Each year, an estimated 200,000 people die from the disease. The parasitic worm is carried by freshwater snails in contaminated water systems, and causes damage to the spleen, liver and other organs that can be fatal.
Dr Fairlie said that there is only one drug widely used for treating schistosomiasis, and concerns about the potential for drug resistance have increased the urgency for new drug targets and treatments. "Schistosomiasis ranks with malaria as
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Walter and Eliza Hall Institute