Scientists have identified the genetic blueprint of a parasite that causes disfigurement and debilitating diseases, an advance which could lead to new treatments, research released Thursday said.
The parasite, Brugia malayi (B. malayi), has incapacitated and disfigured more than 40 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
The female worms "can live for up to eight years inside the human body, eventually leading to a ghastly disfiguring disease known as elephantiasis," said the study which appears in the September 21 issue of the journal Science.
People can become infected if bitten by an insect or spider that is carrying the parasite, which can cause a buildup of lymphatic fluid that leads to massive swelling in the head, limbs and trunk of the infected person.
"Existing drugs target the larvae and, thus, do not completely kill the worms," said the report.
"The drugs often must be taken periodically for years, and the worm can cause a massive immune reaction when it dies and releases foreign molecules in the body."
But pinning down the genome of B. malayi will allow scientists to better figure out how to kill it, according to the lead author of the study, Elodie Ghedin, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
"The genomic information gives us a better understanding of what genes are important for different processes in the parasite's life cycle. So, it will now be possible to target these genes more specifically and interrupt its life cycle," said Ghedin.
The international team of researchers included several US universities as well as the Imperial College of London, the National Australian University, Canada's Hospital for Sick Children and Germany's University of Gottingen.
According to WHO, 150 million people around the world are infected with filarial parasites, which are long, wormlike microscopic organisms that can live inside people for years and cause debilitating illness.