Vaccine against oral hookworm could save millions 

Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have made a significant breakthrough in the development of a vaccine to prevent hookworm infection – a parasite which causes serious disease in tens of millions of people around the world.

Trials of the vaccine candidate in mice indicate that it is more than twice as effective than existing alternatives and marks a leap forward in the battle against the highly contagious parasite. 

Professor Istvan Toth from UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biology said: “Our vaccine candidate can be orally self-administered, bypassing the need for trained medical staff, and means there’s no requirement for special storage, enabling it to reach large, isolated populations. Vaccination can be carried out at a significantly reduced cost, which not only improves the health of those affected and at high risk, but also helps improve economic growth in disease-endemic areas.” 

Hookworm currently infects around half a billion people globally and lives within the human intestine, using the host’s blood as its source of nourishment, digested through a special set of enzymes. 

It’s often found in regions with poor water quality, sanitation, and hygiene – greatly impacting the physical and cognitive development of children and increasing the risk of mortality and miscarriage. 

UQ’s trials in mice showed significant improvements on an alternative vaccine candidate which only achieved a 30 to 50% reduction in the number of worms. “The UQ-developed vaccine resulted in an impressive 94 per cent worm reduction in mice,” Professor Toth said. “So not only is our new vaccine candidate easier to deliver, it triggers a staggeringly good immune response.” 

Co-author of the paper Dr Mariusz Skwarczynski said the research team targeted the hookworm’s digestion enzyme (APR 1): “When the function of these enzymes is blocked, the parasite starves. Our vaccine produces antibodies against the hookworm enzymes responsible for the digestion of blood – they simply stop being able to eat properly.” 

The researchers plan to continue refining the vaccine candidate in preclinical development settings to ensure its safety and efficacy before beginning human clinical trials. 

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