Researchers map parasite with promising effect on autoimmune diseases
In collaboration with international colleagues, researchers at the University of Copenhagen have successfully mapped the genome of the whipworm parasite. Their findings have now been published in the recognised scientific journal Nature Genetics. Among other things, the parasite is used in research into curing autoimmune diseases.
A cocktail featuring living whipworm eggs from a pig – perhaps not the most attractive offer, but if such a cocktail can treat autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis or sclerosis, very few patients would decline. Based on promising US studies, researchers are now trying to use worms in treatment for a number of autoimmune diseases. The worm treatment consists of living whipworms whose genome has now been mapped by colleagues from Australia, China, USA and Canada in collaboration with Danish researchers at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. They have mapped the entire genome of the parasite and all the genes that the pig whipworm (Trichuris suis) uses at different life stages.
"It’s fantastic! We have gained fundamental insight into the biology of the parasite, which could become an important contribution to developing new treatment methods," says an enthusiastic Peter Nejsum, Associate Professor at the Department of Veterinary Disease Biology, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.
Whipworms can change immune response
Three years in the making and conducted by leading researchers in the field, the study offers basic knowledge on the genome and genes of the parasite. The whipworm genome is 40 times smaller than the human genome and contains approximately 14,000 genes. Among other things, the mapping provides an understanding of how the parasite survives in and affects the immune response of the host. The immune response is particularly interesting as research has previously demonstrated a positive effect of whipworm on Crohn’s and sclerosis, for example. The theory is that whipworms may attenuate the over-reaction in the immune defence system that takes place in autoimmune diseases.
"The new study is a key element upon which we can base our work involving the possible curative effect of the parasite," says Peter Nejsum.
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Whipworms as treatment
The whipworm is a parasite. The whipworms used in human treatment studies come from pigs. The parasite can only survive for short periods in the human intestines where it attaches and develops in the intestinal mucosa and activates the immune defence system. Hereafter it dies and is released from the body.