The parasitic nematode worms responsible for diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis currently infect more than 150 million people in tropical regions around the world. They leave millions of sufferers disfigured and incapacitated, and conventional treatments can take months or even years to kill off the thread-like worms.

An academic-industry consortium has now unveiled a preclinical drug candidate that could halt the parasites after a seven-day treatment (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA2019, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816585116). “It looks like a much better option,” says parasitologist Dennis Kyle, director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases at the University of Georgia, who was not involved in the research. “This is very good news.”

Biting insects such as mosquitoes or blackflies can carry worm larvae from person to person, and the adult nematodes can live and reproduce inside their human hosts for years. Current treatments only target immature larvae called microfilariae and leave adults free to reproduce, so long-term treatment programs are needed to clear the worms from patients.

The new drug candidate takes a different approach. It targets a bacterium called Wolbachia that lives inside the worm and is essential for the parasite’s reproduction, although researchers have yet to figure out why. Previous studies have shown that eliminating more than 90% of the Wolbachia can sterilize female parasites and shorten the lives of adult worms, breaking the parasite’s lifecycle.

Read more at C&E News.