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Searching for the tapeworm's Achilles' heel

March 13, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • The genome sequence of tapeworms might lead to cures for tropical diseases caused by the parasites, such as hydatid disease and cysticercosis.
The genome sequence of tapeworms might lead to cures for tropical diseases… (Centers for Disease Control…)

Tapeworms are among humanity's oldest parasites, and were even studied by the ancient Greeks, yet a safe, effective cure to "bladder-worm" infection remains elusive.

Part of the difficulty, scientists say, is that an adult tapeworm can live relatively harmlessly in a host's gut, but its larvae will spread through the host's body, like cancer, forming cysts in organs and other tissue.

In some hosts, which include dogs, pigs and sheep, infection can lead to blindness, epilepsy or death.

Now, however, scientists say a cure may be close at hand. In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers say they have mapped the tapeworm's genome, and found key weaknesses in its genetic blueprint.

Among other findings, researchers noted that over time, tapeworms have lost the ability to synthesize the fat and cholesterol necessary to sustain larvae. Instead, they scavenge them from their host.

In order for tapeworms to do this, they produce specific proteins. Disrupting those proteins with drugs might help fight the parasites, researchers said.

Tapeworms cause two of the World Health Organization's 17 neglected tropical diseases: echinococcosis, or hydatid disease, and cysticercosis.

"Tapeworm infections are highly prevalent worldwide," wrote senior author Matthew Berriman, a biochemist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England. "When diagnosed, the disease is often at an advanced stage at which surgery is no longer an option."

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