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Australia Researching Use of Parasites Against Bio-Weapons

Two researchers from the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine have begun studying if parasitic worms can be used to protect soldiers from chemical and biological weapons.

Molecular parasitology professor Alex Loukas and Dr. Paul Giacomin are studying the possibility that the helminth genome can produce therapeutic molecules to protect humans against bioterrorism agents. Helminths are parasitic worms that live inside the human body, infecting billions of people.

The intent of the project is to reduce the burden of soldiers and medical responders who have to wear personal protective equipment when at risk of chemical or biological attack.

“Capitalizing on recent advances in genetic modification using CRISPR-Cas9, the team will create parasitic helminths that secrete drugs that counteract bioterrorism agents, and thereby protect the parasite-infected subject against chemical and biological agents in a safe and well tolerated manner,” Loukas said in a press release.

Loukas is known for his works in discovering antigens for the treatment of schistosomiasis and hookworm. His current research on helminths will involve testing genetically modified worms.

‘Tiny Factories’

Loukas pointed out that although there are antibodies with anti-organophosphate drug properties available on the market, he and his colleagues will continue their work on genetically modified parasites that protect troops from chemical or biological exposure.

He also explained that delivering antibodies through worms is effective because they constantly reproduce.

“They can just sit there and hopefully churn out the required amounts of these antibodies as opposed to a vaccination strategy which is quite different,” the professor told ABC News.

‘A Clear Advantage’

Loukas believes that chemical and biological threats will become more common as technology continues to evolve, describing it as “clearly an advantage” to have an internal solution to counter these threats.

He also describes the project as “cutting-edge” work in which James Cook University (JCU) is playing an integral part.

The program is part of a $16.4 million contract awarded to Charles River Analytics. Aside from JCU, six other international universities and companies will help in the research and development stage.

“It’s certainly a collaborative effort with our colleagues, particularly in the US and Europe who are doing the genetic engineering aspects,” Loukas told 1 News. “Whereas we bring the expertise to the project with human experimental infections with parasitic worms.”

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