Edinburgh scientists have made a key discovery in a bid to cure a potentially fatal tropical illness, which threatens 600 million people worldwide.
Scientists have found a type of cell, known as a dendritic cell, that triggers the immune system's response against snail fever in mice, reports the Mirror.
Snail fever or bilharzia is a parasitic worm infection that is common in developing countries like Asia, Africa and South America. It causes a chronic illness which damages internal organs and impair growth and brain development in children.
Scientists now believe their findings could pave the way for new research into treatments for the condition.
"Until now, we were unsure which of the many cells found in the immune system were crucial to fighting this parasite. We now know that dendritic cells are key to the process, said lead researcher Andrew MacDonald of the University's School of Biological Sciences.
"If we can manipulate this immune response, we stand a chance of targeting the widespread suffering and chronic illness caused by this infection," he added.
MacDonald said the dendritic cell is important for recognising the infection and sending out signals to neighbouring cells, 'switching them on' to help fight the disease.
"We know we can say that these cells are important, and that's the starting point, but now we need to pinpoint why they're important and that's the harder challenge," he said.
Snail fever is a water-borne disease caused by flukes, or parasitic worms, found in freshwater snails in the tropics. The disease, known for affecting tourists who kayak or swim in infected waters, is second only to malaria in terms of its devastating social and economic impact.
"The particular species that we've been studying is a lethal infection, so there are probably about 600 million people at risk of infection from this disease. That's a huge number," said MacDonald.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, was carried out alongside researchers from the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg.