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LUMC A major step towards a vaccine against hookworm infection

‘The hookworm is a parasite that is very smart at manipulating the immune system’

Meta Roestenberg, Parasitologist LUMC

At an early stage, in 2016, Dioraphte supported the Parasitology Department of the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) in the development of a model that would be useful in researching a vaccine against hookworm infection. The hookworm lives in the intestines of an estimated 500 million people. The eggs of the hookworm are excreted in the faeces and develop into larvae. The larvae often enter the body through the skin. People in the poorest parts of the world are particularly susceptible to infection. Symptoms include intestinal cramps and anaemia. Infected children may suffer from stunted growth.

Manipulate

Under the leadership of Meta Roestenberg, the research group, which consists of about ten people, has now begun the search for a vaccine. ‘The hookworm is a parasite that is extremely clever in manipulating the immune system,’ says Roestenberg. To find a solution, 23 test subjects were contaminated with the eggs of the hookworm on three occasions. ‘We were delighted to observe that during the second and third infections, the skin of some of the test subjects turned red at the site of larval penetration. The more severe the reaction, the stronger the immune system’s reaction and the greater the level of protection. In people with the most severe reactions, we hardly found any worms at all.’

Antibodies

The next question is: which part of the immune system responds to the infection? ‘In order to research this, we compare the immune systems of those test subjects who react severely, with those who have little or no reaction to reinfection. It appears very likely that the first group produces more antibodies. The question, then, is: which parasite protein is responsible for the production of these antibodies? This is what we are looking for at present. When we know that, we will be able to make a significant step in the development of a vaccine.’