Ground-breaking vaccine may be key to controlling and eliminating bilharzia

Worldwide, poverty and poor health are consistently linked. Diseases of poverty are not high on the global research agenda and tend to be neglected, but they are an enormous problem in the developing world.

One such disease is schistosomiasis, or bilharzia, caused by parasitic worms. Infestation happens when parasites released by certain types of freshwater snails come in contact with the skin or are swallowed. It’s second only to malaria in having the most devastating socioeconomic impact on communities.

The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 90% of people who need treatment for schistosomiasis live in Africa. Although it can be treated with cheap drugs, treatment does not prevent reinfection, and there is no vaccine available. Aside from having a severe impact on patients’ quality of life, this debilitating disease can lead to death when eggs remain lodged in the liver and other tissues such as the kidneys.

A researcher who is committed to the challenge of finding ways to help patients overcome the disease is Dr Hlumani Ndlovu, a lecturer in the Division of Chemical and Systems Biology at University of Cape Town. He and his team are working to develop a vaccine to eradicate bilharzia, investigating the immuno-biology of the disease using animal models to mimic infection in humans.

“There is an urgent need to understand the immuno-biology of schistosomiasis to facilitate the development of effective vaccines,” says Ndlovu. “The study was designed to contribute knowledge to address this important challenge. Our vision is to use the knowledge gained from the study to develop a solution that will boost the host’s B cell responses during chronic schistosomiasis to limit tissue pathology, particularly in the liver. This work will be undertaken using non-human primates that closely resemble humans. Efforts to secure funds to continue with our work are ongoing.”


This research could lead to the identification of candidate proteins or immune factors as targets for host-directed therapies to help combat liver fibrosis, which can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer and ultimately death.

Developing host-directed therapies would be game-changing for patients with chronic schistosomiasis, and can greatly improve their quality of life. Ndlovu’s studies have contributed immensely in the identification of immunological mechanisms and cellular subsets that can either be augmented or attenuated to control inflammatory tissue pathology, a response triggered by damage to living tissues.

Host-directed therapy acts via a host-mediated response to the pathogen rather than acting directly on it, like traditional antibiotics. It can change the local environment in which the pathogen exists to make it less favourable, stopping it from replicating. This would carry huge socioeconomic benefits and reduce the burden of disease in the developing world.

“Because schistosomiasis is a water-borne disease, developing a vaccine would have significant social and economic benefits,” he says. In addition to improving health, it would allow local communities to fish more freely, thereby contributing to the alleviation of poverty. It could also allow communities to offer water sports that could boost tourism in endemic countries.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

No mercy for teachers who are found guilty of misconduct

New regulations give direction on what sanctions should be imposed on disgraceful teachers, including lifetime bans for serious offences

There is less full-time work than there was a year...

Over the last year, amid lockdowns and recession, the number of part-time jobs increased while full-time jobs took a cut in South Africa

More top stories

IMF launches interactive climate dashboard

South Africa’s climate change transition risk is 5.6 on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest

Climate change threatens survival of endemic species the most

If Earth warms by 3°C, a third of species living on land and about half of endemic marine species will become extinct

Anger as Ace alters step-aside rules

Outraged provincial secretaries called for a meeting with Luthuli House after the ANC secretary general broadened the NEC’s step-aside resolution

Food delivery drivers seek better employee rights

A group of South African Uber drivers plan to go to court to seek employee rights including compensation for overtime and holiday pay, hoping for a similar victory to that of British drivers in March
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…