November 7, 2005
Worm parasite may hold clues in bid for illness and allergy cures
Tiny worms that can trick the body's natural defences could hold the key to new treatments for a range of conditions, including diabetes, asthma and hay fever. University of Edinburgh scientists, who have discovered that helminth parasites can exploit an 'Achilles heel' in our immune system, now hope to mimic the worms' survival tactics in a bid to beat infection.
To find out how helminths fool the body's defences, the team are focusing on the role played by so-called 'regulatory cells', which fulfil a policing role that protects our bodies. These cells decide when to stop the immune system from attacking the body's own proteins (a process called autoimmunity) and also prevent it from attacking harmless environmental molecules.
The study "“ the first findings of which are reported in the Journal of Experimental Medicine "“ could also help growing numbers of people in the developed world who have autoimmune conditions such as diabetes, asthma and hay fever. Again, the key is identifying the molecules that helminths produce in order to influence regulatory cell activity. If scientists can understand how these molecules trigger suppression of the immune system, they might also employ the molecules to stop the immune system from attacking the body's own cells "“ which is what happens in diseases caused by over-active immune responses.
Professor Rick Maizels, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences, has been awarded £1.3 million by the Wellcome Trust to conduct the research. He said: "Perhaps we can borrow a trick from parasites, and employ the molecules which suppress the immune system to treat these auto-immune disorders. The project therefore offers potential for new treatments of diseases in both the developed world and the disadvantaged countries of the tropics."
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