'Weakness mining' for tapeworm drugs

Tapeworm

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Tapeworm parasites have had their genetic code mined for weaknesses in an effort by an international team of researchers to find new treatments.

Infection can be fatal or lead to complications such as blindness or epilepsy, and current drugs are often ineffective.

The study suggested that some cancer drugs, which have already been developed, may help.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

Tapeworms have complicated lives. The adults of one tapeworm, Taenia solium, live in the human gut. The tapeworm is passed onto pigs through faeces. A larval stage forms cysts inside the pig's flesh, which are then eaten by people.

Adult tapeworms tend to cause mild symptoms in people, as they stay in the gut. However, people can get the far more dangerous larval stage of the parasite, which forms cysts throughout the body, including the brain.

The World Health Organization lists two tapeworms of its list 17 neglected tropical diseases that need action.

'Mining'

Researchers worked out the entire genetic code of four species of tapeworm parasite.

They then looked for similarities between the parasite and humans, as this opened up the possibility drugs that had already been designed could work on the parasite.

"We mined the genome for targets," said one of the scientists, Dr Matthew Berriman, from the Sanger Institute in the UK.

He told the BBC: "At the top of the list are the tapeworm equivalent of the targets for cancer drugs."

He said the larval stage formed "horrible tumour-like growths", so using cancer drugs may provide a "very attractive vulnerability".

It is hoped that using a parasite's DNA to hunt for weaknesses and then finding drugs to match will be more economical than trying to design drugs from scratch.

Dr Berriman said this approach "could save years" of research.

Fellow researcher Dr Magdalena Zarowiecki said: "What we're trying to do is accelerate the development of these very important drugs."

Prof Peter Hotez, from the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in the US, said: "We need to take advantage of this genetic sequence data to find new and improved ways of coping with this problem that devastates much of the developed and developing world.

"Open access to these complete genomes will accelerate the pace in which we find alternative tools and treatments to combat tapeworm infections."

You can hear more from the researchers on Science In Action on the BBC World Service, Thursday at 19:30 GMT.

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