Tiny worms that can trick the bodys natural defences could hold the key to new treatments for a range of conditions, including diabetes, asthma and hay fever. University of Edinburgh scientists, who have discovered that helminth parasites can exploit an Achilles heel in our immune system, now hope to mimic the worms survival tactics in a bid to beat infection.
To find out how helminths fool the bodys defences, the team are focusing on the role played by so-called regulatory cells, which fulfil a policing role that protects our bodies. These cells decide when to stop the immune system from attacking the bodys own proteins (a process called autoimmunity) and also prevent it from attacking harmless environmental molecules.
It is thought that helminths produce molecules that trigger a response in regulatory cells (similar to the one that prevents autoimmunity), which tricks the body into switching off the response that would otherwise kill the parasites. If that is the case, then infections could be cured, not by vaccination or drug treatment, but by reactivating the immune system. It is the first time such a concept has been explored to curb the tropical diseases caused by helminths – such as filariasis and schistosomiasis – which affect one in four of the global population.
Ronald Kerr | EurekAlert!
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