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Research May Lead to New Treatments for Snail Fever

Public health officials are hoping that recent scientific progress will lead to new treatments for a debilitating and potentially deadly tropical disease, which affects more than 200 million people every year. Researchers completed the genetic blueprint of two species of parasite, which cause schistosomiasis; otherwise known as bilharzia, or snail fever.

For the 650 million people said to be at risk of contracting schistosomiasis, the simple act of bathing can lead to chronic illness, even death.

The tiny, waterborne parasites burrow through the skin, reach adulthood and lay eggs inside their human host.

Now, after four years of work, decoding the DNA of the most widespread of the parasites - Schistosoma mansoni - researchers at the University of Maryland are looking for ways to beat it.

Professor Najib El-Sayed helped to lead the trans-Atlantic project, which had teams in the US and the UK. He says he is hopeful that the research will open the door to new treatments, perhaps even a vaccine.

"Essentially, you have a catalog of opportunities that you can pick and choose from and pursue in the lab with more directed studies," he explains.

Further studies have already produced what Professor El-Sayed describes as some "very promising" leads.

"We were able to identify several drugs that are used in humans for other purposes that may potentially work against the parasite, in theory," El-Sayed said. "And that's very important, because being able to re-purpose drugs is a very cost-effective strategy."

So far, a cheap drug called praziquantel has been used. Although the drug is effective, it does not prevent a person from becoming reinfected.

John Rogers works at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which helped to fund the genetic research. He warns that having just a single treatment option poses potential risks.

"The problem, any time that you have a single drug, is that the likelihood of resistance increases enormously," Rogers says. "So, there is a risk out there - a potential risk - of resistance to this drug. If that arose, you would have no treatment for schistosomiasis."

Professor El-Sayed and others involved in decoding the genome want to see public-private partnerships formed to build on the work they have done.

"Certainly investment from governments, from ministries of health, and of course from private entities that hopefully we can convince that we've done most of the work and now the last step is up to them," he says.

Even with the work done here at the University of Maryland and elsewhere, scientists caution that it is too early to say how soon a new drug might come along.

On the brighter side, the kind of state-of-the-art technology used to work on the genome is making the process faster and cheaper. And, that holds the promise that a cure may come sooner, rather than later.