Helminths are master manipulators of the host immune system, enabling them to evade immune responses and vaccination strategies to cause chronic, debilitating infection. Yet at the same time, these immunomodulatory capabilities can temper inflammatory and autoimmune diseases in their hosts, and offer researchers new tools and approaches for drug development against many illnesses.
This week at the Keystone Symposia meeting “Helminths: New Insights from Immunity to Global Health” in Cape Town, South Africa, global leaders from academia, industry, medicine and public health sectors discussed the latest advances in understanding these highly successful parasites.
Topics at the meeting covered a diverse array of basic biology to clinical challenges, spanning the molecular to the epidemiological including:
Vaccination challenges and solutions
Novel immunomodulatory molecules, drug targets and strategies
Microbiome- helminth interactions
Protective immune mechanisms and pathways
Epidemiology and ecology of transmission
Addressing the Global Helminth Burden
Given the lack of vaccine and drug treatment options against helminths, communities and leaders are turning to public health measures to combat this epidemic—with great success. The World Health Organization is focused on identifying central modes of morbidity and transmission, with the goal of intervening at these critical points to achieve the greatest impact on the global health burden. Public health interventions focus on improving sanitation and access to clean water sources, via both infrastructure and behavioral interventions, which can dramatically reduce helminth infection rates. These include:
Building bridges to reduce human contact with helminth infested waters and mud.
Installing infrastructure to contain human waste, such as public toilets along rivers.
Altering behavioral practices through health education by informing people to excrete away from rivers to reduce the risk of infection in the community.
Vector control measures to reduce environmental reservoirs of helminths. (ie. chemotherapy or other controls against snails that harbor helminths)
Combining many of these initiatives is a synergistic and powerful means to control and dramatically reduce helminth infection and transmission rates.
For a glimpse into the Helminths meeting, watch these interviews with meeting co-organizers
Shannon Weiman earned her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, specializing in microbiology and immunology. Prior to joining the Keystone Symposia team, she worked as a freelance writer for leaders in academic, industry and government research, including Stanford University’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative, the University of Colorado’s Biofrontiers Program, UCSF, the FDA and the American Society for Microbiology.