Researchers have sequenced and compared the genomes of 81 species of parasitic worms in the largest genetic study of the worms to date. The results, published today (November 5) in Nature Genetics, could lead to treatments for illnesses caused by the parasites, such as river blindness, schistosomiasis, and hookworm disease.

“Little is known about the biology of many parasitic worm species, so we used a broad comparison of their genomes to discover the most striking genetic differences between them,” senior author Matt Berriman of the Wellcome Sanger Institute says in a statement. “We have uncovered many new genes and gene families to help understand how the worms live and migrate inside us and other animals. This dataset will catapult worm research into a new era of discovery.”

The research team, which included collaborators from the University of Edinburgh and Washington University in Saint Louis,...

Analysis of the sequence data revealed nearly a million novel genes and many new gene families. Different species showed specialization for different parasitic processes: some had genes for colonizing the gut, migrating through host tissue, and digesting food, while others had genes for evading the host immune system.

Once they had their gene database, the researchers cross-referenced it with a database of currently available drugs. They identified 40 drug targets in the worm genomes and hundreds of existing drugs and compounds with the potential to hit those targets.  

“The spectrum of drugs available to treat worm infections is still very limited,” study coauthor Avril Coghlan of the Wellcome Sanger Institute says in the statement. The team’s approach “may provide a fast-track route to pinpointing existing drugs that could be repurposed for deworming.”

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