Over the last 50 years there have been marked improvements in social and economic conditions in the developed world. This has led to reduced exposure to a range of infectious agents, including parasitic worms known as helminths, which is thought to alter the balance of our immune systems. It has been proposed that reduced exposure to certain helminths might be responsible for the increased incidence of autoimmune conditions, such as MS.
This theory has led to the idea that ‘worm therapy’ may help to treat conditions such as MS. The therapy involves infecting people with MS with a controlled dose of helminth parasites, with that hope it might suppress the excessive pro-inflammatory immune responses associated with MS. Preliminary studies have provided promising results, however, the use of live parasites as therapeutic agents has limitations, in particular the risk of infection damaging other tissues.
An alternative, safer strategy might include identifying the chemical worms use to dampen down any immune response. With this in mind, Dr Donnelly has identified a single molecule, secreted by a helminth parasite, which helps prevents a MS like disease in a laboratory model. This research project will determine the mechanisms by which this protection is achieved. Results obtained will support the development of novel strategies to inhibit progression of MS, with potential for the development of new therapeutic drugs.
Dr Donnelly and her team have identified a molecule, called FhHDM-1 that is secreted by parasitic worms. They have treated a laboratory model of MS with this molecule to determine how it inhibits the development of the disease. Preliminary data shows that this molecule prevents immune cells from damaging the cells of the brain and spinal cord which leads to the physical manifestations of MS. Dr Donnelly is currently trying to determine what happens inside the immune cells to prevent them from penetrating the brain and spinal cord. She is investigating a range of other molecules, and their effect on a specific type of immune cell known as a macrophages.
This work has been orally presented at national and international conferences and won two poster presentation prizes at national meetings.
Updated 26 June 17
Updated: 30 January, 2016