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Parasite-derived Drug Could Fight Autoimmune Disorders

Friday, February 28, 2003
Betterhumans Staff

Getting a parasitic infection is nobody's idea of fun, even if it does fight autoimmune disorders. Fortunately, researchers are working on a drug that mimics the effect of an anti-inflammatory molecule produced by a common parasite, which could help relieve such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis.

"This discovery is very exciting and it may help explain an observation that has puzzled scientists and clinicians for decades: the reduced incidence of autoimmune disorders in areas of high nematode worm transmission," says William Harnett of the department of immunology at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow.

"It still seems ironic, however, that a parasitic worm which lives off humans may also provide a means to relieve suffering for millions of people," says Harnett. "We hope to produce a derivative of the worm's anti-inflammatory molecule and use it as the basis for a drug."

When the immune system goes bad

Autoimmune disorders affect up to 10% of the Western world. They occur when the immune system attacks the body's own tissues.

Common autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and thyroid disease.

Existing treatments for such conditions are less than ideal, as they can suppress the body's immune system and leave people prone to infection.

"We desperately need new treatments for autoimmune disorders," says Iain McInnes, professor of experimental medicine at the University of Glasgow. "Existing treatments, even the newest, most innovative ones, have limitations. They do not work for everybody and the side effects can be debilitating in themselves."

Worm secretions

Researchers have found that parasitic worms called filarial nematodes secrete an anti-inflammatory molecule that causes no obvious side effects.

The worms infect millions of people in the tropics, where there is a reduced incidence of autoimmune disorders.

The molecule they secrete, ES-62, allows them to prolong their life in a host.

Researchers at University of Strathclyde and the University of Glasgow aim to create a drug that mimics the molecule's effects and relieves autoimmune disorders.

They will receive Scottish Enterprise Proof of Concept Fund money to pursue their work. The fund supports cutting-edge technologies in Scotland's academic institutions.

"The prospect of treating painful inflammatory diseases with a drug that doesn't completely suppress the patient's immune system is a major medical breakthrough," says McInnes.

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