Thursday, July 16, 2009

Schistosome gene sequence decoded

Schistosomes are parasitic flatworms responsible for diseases variously referred to as schistosomiasis or bilharzia. These diseases occur throughout the tropics, particularly in areas adjacent to still or slow-moving water. The life cycle of the schistosome parasites includes a stint of residence inside a freshwater snail. The initial symptoms of schistosomiasis include fever, fatigue, rashes, and eye infections, but the disease can progress to cause internal bleeding, organ failure, and eventually death. I developed schistosomiasis myself as an eight year old boy, after my family returned to the United States from Nigeria.

Dr. Matt Berriman, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, is quoted by the BBC saying that gene sequencing "provides a foundation for understanding aspects of the parasite's complex biology as well as a vehicle to immediately identify new targets for drug treatment." According to fellow researcher Dr Najib El-Sayed, of the University of Maryland, "the genome sequence has given us, for the first time, a comprehensive view of the engines that drive the parasite, the strategies that allow it to survive in us, its human host.

I know that treatments for schistosomiasis had already progressed far beyond what I was subjected to as a child. It is exciting to hear of these new potential treatments, and the genetics of these organisms may also yield clues about how to manage tropical environments to more effectively control the parasite.

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