A scientist won $1.8 million to study how parasitic worms suppress our immune systems with venom to live inside us undetected

adler dillman nematodes

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Adler Dillman is obsessed with worms. 

“I’m a big sci-fi fan, especially the ‘Alien’ franchise movies,” Dillman, a parasitologist at the University of California, Riverside, told Business Insider. “This idea of having something that can be inside you without you knowing seems like something out of those movies, but it turns out we have that kind of stuff on planet Earth.”

Indeed, billions of people — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — are infected with some kind of parasitic worms, also known as nematodes. These worms for the most part wriggle their way into our bodies undetected. Some can cause blindness, cognitive impairment, and even death.

“You can have a person riddled with infection who never realized there’s a 2-centimeter-long worm in their eye and thousands of parasites in their blood,” Dillman said in a recent press release about his research. “The immune system never signaled something was wrong. How is that possible? We know very little about how that works.” 

In July, the National Institutes of Health awarded Dillman $1.8 million to investigate exactly that — how our bodies get caught with their immunological pants down when it comes to parasitic worms.

So far, Dillman said, what we know is that nematodes exude a venomous spit that helps them avoid detection. By studying how exactly that venom suppresses parts of our immune system, Dillman hopes to help scientists figure out how to better treat deadly autoimmune disorders — conditions like inflammatory bowel disease or Celiac disease.

Dillman is infecting fruit flies with nematodes 

Dillman’s research focuses on identifying the specific proteins in a nematode’s venom that help it trick a host into ignoring its presence.

“They are masters of modulating the immune system,” he said. “My goal is to identify the chemical pathways that allow it to happen.”

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His lab is looking at 500 or so different types of proteins released by nematodes that infect fruit flies, since “flies are cheaper and easier to work with, and the parasites that affect insects release the same proteins as those that infect mammals,” he said. 

The research requires infecting the flies with various types of worm venom. That causes some flies to die within hours, since the nematodes that infect insects — unlike those that infect humans — kill their host. But others see their immune response get significantly shut down; that’s the process Dillman hopes to figure out. 

But collecting enough venom to do these experiments at all is challenging, he said, since it requires “milking” the microscopic nematodes.

“You need millions to get an appreciable amount of venom,” Dillman added. 

Worm venom could be used to treat autoimmune disorders

Understanding how nematode venom proteins tamp down a host’s immuno-defenses could help researchers develop therapies to treat autoimmune disorders — conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body.

“There’s compelling evidence that having a nematode infection may help regulate a disorderly immune response,” Dillman said, adding that past clinical trials have used nematodes to treat Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and …read more

Source:: Business Insider


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