Sep 22, 2007
The genetic blueprint of a parasite that causes the painful disfiguring disease elephantiasis has been unravelled by scientists.
The genome of the worm Brugia malayi, reported in the journal Science by US and UK experts, could lead eventually to new drugs or vaccines.
More than 130 million people worldwide are infected by this or similar worms.
One leading expert said it was a "scandal" existing, cheap and effective drugs were not more widely available.
Elephantiasis is a sign of an advanced and long-standing infection with these parasites, and can cause massive swelling of the legs and genitals.
It is recognised as the second-leading cause of disability behind blindness worldwide and is present in 80 countries.
The infection is spread by mosquito bites.
The genome research was carried out at Imperial College, London, and three US institutions.
It means all the genes in the worm's DNA have been identified and, in the years to come, closer examination of these and the proteins they produce could lead to targets for either immunisation or treatment.
Imperial College's Dr David Giuliano, one of the project's leaders, said: "We hope that our data will enable both ourselves and other research teams around the world to move forward and study the mechanisms by which this parasite infects humans in greater detail, which should lead to better targeted drugs to treat infection, and hopefully - in the long run - a vaccine to prevent it."
However, Professor David Molyneux, from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, while praising the research, said it was "pointless" to seek out new, expensive drugs for this type of worm infection when even cheap drugs were not being given to the people who needed them.
He said that experience in countries such as China, Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka showed that it was possible to eradicate the disease completely within a matter of a few years.
He said: "This is fantastic science, but we already have drugs that work and that cost just a few cents per child per year, but they aren't being provided in many countries.
"It's purely a question of resources, and it's a scandal.
"We have the means at our disposal to eradicate these diseases - which affect more than a hundred million people worldwide - by the year 2020.
"I cannot see genome-based research coming up with new drugs or vaccines which could be more effective within this timescale."