Saturday 18 July 2009

Unpronounceable killer

Twenty-nine people have now died from swine flu in the UK. Bilharzia kills 280,000 every year in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease, which also has the less pronounceable name schistosomiasis, infects 200 million people every year, and across the world 20 million have to live with the anaemia, chronic diarrhoea, internal bleeding and organ damage it brings.

The illness is caused by tiny flatworms that live in water, and use forked tails to burrow into the skin of humans. For more than 20 years, we have had a cheap drug that can combat bliharzia, but the problem is that it does not prevent people from being infected again.

Now scientists have decoded the worm’s genetic blueprint. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is complex - made up of nearly 12,000 genes, about ten times as many as the genome of the malaria parasite.

However, the researchers are confident that it reveals new ways in which the worm can be fought, and they also say it has helped them to identify more than 60 drugs that we already have that could disrupt its deadly activities.

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