Path to Better Health Fighting a global health scourge

Protecting against a devastating tropical disease

Investigators

  • Phil Newmark, Burnell R. Roberts Chair in Regenerative Biology at Morgridge, Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, Integrative Biology Professor at UW-Madison
  • Tracy Chong, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Specialist
  • Jiarong Gao, UW-Madison Graduate Student Researcher
  • Jayhun Lee, Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Janmesh Patel, UW-Madison Undergraduate Research Assistant

About the Project:

Schistosomiasis is a devastating tropical disease that affects the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. The only treatment currently available is effective against the adult parasites in the host, and not against the other parasite life-stages. There are also concerns of parasites developing resistance to the drug. The Newmark Lab wants to discover drug leads that could protect people from being infected in the first place.

The Newmark Lab:

The Newmark Lab at the Morgridge Institute uses freshwater planarians as models to study regeneration, germ cell development and to understand parasitic flatworms like schistosomes and tapeworms.

Schistosomiasis is a devastating neglected tropical disease that affects as many as 250 million people, mostly in Africa, Asia and South America. This debilitating disease causes anemia, malnutrition, pervasive learning disabilities, and kills an estimated 280,000 people each year. In Wisconsin, thousands of miles from where schistosomiasis is most prevalent, the Newmark lab is working hard to find a way to prevent this disease, which predominantly afflicts the world’s poorest people.

Schistosomiasis is caused by parasitic flatworms called schistosomes. Once schistosomes enter the human body, they travel to blood vessels around the liver or bladder and cause severe health problems. A single drug, Praziquantel, is currently the only form of treatment available. However, Praziquantel is only able to kill the parasite in its adult form, and is ineffective on other stages of the parasite’s life cycle. That means Praziquantel can only help treat people who are already suffering from the disease and cannot be used preventatively. Researchers in the Newmark lab are working to develop a treatment that protects people from being infected in the first place. 

A large part of the Newmark lab’s research focuses on the complicated life cycle of these parasites. Schistosomes are found in tainted freshwater lakes and ponds, where parasite eggs hatch into tiny creatures whose sole task is to infect a specific type of snail. Once inside the snail host, the parasite produces massive numbers of offspring called cercariae that escape the snail and swim through the water hunting for their new prey: humans. The cercariae then infect unsuspecting humans by burrowing through exposed skin. 

This confocal microscope image shows a small snail, removed from its shell, which is infected with thousands of schistosome parasites. The snail plays a key role in the life cycle of the parasite that causes schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease that sickens hundreds of millions of people. Photo courtesy of Bo Wang and Phillip Newmark.

In the 1980s, schistosome researchers Stirewalt and Lewis made a striking observation: when microscopic aquatic invertebrates called rotifers colonize the shells of snail hosts, fewer cercariae were released from the snails. Furthermore, cercarial motility and infectivity was affected. They concluded that these rotifers were releasing a small molecule with cercarial paralyzing activity into the water. For decades, the identity of this molecule remained unknown. Phil’s curiosity was piqued by this 30-year old mystery. Could a way to prevent schistosomiasis already exist in nature?  

Hunting down the molecule that paralyzes the infective schistosome stage has been a challenging mission in the Newmark Lab. But recently, work by graduate student Jiarong Gao in collaboration with Jonathan Sweedler’s lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, uncovered the identity of this molecule and confirmed its activity as a potent schistosome paralytic that can prevent disease transmission in the laboratory. Scientists in the Newmark Lab are now studying this molecule to see how it works, and exploring whether they can find others that work even better, toward the goal of moving us closer to a preventative therapy for schistosomiasis.

Investigators

  • Phil Newmark, Burnell R. Roberts Chair in Regenerative Biology at Morgridge, Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, Integrative Biology Professor at UW-Madison
  • Tracy Chong, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Specialist
  • Jiarong Gao, UW-Madison Graduate Student Researcher
  • Jayhun Lee, Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Janmesh Patel, UW-Madison Undergraduate Research Assistant

About the Project:

Schistosomiasis is a devastating tropical disease that affects the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. The only treatment currently available is effective against the adult parasites in the host, and not against the other parasite life-stages. There are also concerns of parasites developing resistance to the drug. The Newmark Lab wants to discover drug leads that could protect people from being infected in the first place.

The Newmark Lab:

The Newmark Lab at the Morgridge Institute uses freshwater planarians as models to study regeneration, germ cell development and to understand parasitic flatworms like schistosomes and tapeworms.

Path to Better Health

Path to Better Health

The series explores the tremendous stakes involved in biomedical research and why a fundamental understanding of biology is needed to improve human health. Learn more about the challenges of predicting preterm births, developing protections against viruses, fighting a devastating tropical disease, and keeping babies safe under anesthesia.

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