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The Museum and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have launched a $27 million (£19 million) partnership to demonstrate the feasibility of eliminating intestinal worms, which infect more than 1.45 billion people.
The DeWorm3 project will focus on soil-transmitted helminths, a group of parasitic intestinal worms including roundworm, whipworm and hookworm. The diseases they cause can have devastating consequences for people’s health and quality of life, contributing to the cycle of poverty.
'These diseases severely affect quality of life for millions of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Developing successful strategies to interrupt the transmission of these infections will alleviate this burden, helping to reduce poverty and having a positive economic impact,' said Museum Director, Sir Michael Dixon.
'The Museum brings long-standing expertise in parasitic diseases to the partnership with The Gates Foundation, underpinned by the data held in our collection.'
The Museum will lead the research, providing governance, scientific oversight, data management and the organisation of scientific and technical advice.
DeWorm3 will examine how existing mass drug-administration programmes for other diseases caused by parasitic worms, such as lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis, could be used in soil-transmitted helminth elimination efforts. Because all of these diseases share close geographical connections and similarities in treatment regimens, researchers think a coordinated approach to elimination could prove successful.
'The resources being provided are unparalleled,' says Dr Judd Walson, the DeWorm3 Principal Investigator as well as Associate Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington.
'The size and scope of this project means we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study and document the feasibility and potential health impacts of disrupting the transmission of these parasites.'
The Museum is looking for research partners with experience conducting community trials in countries where relevant neglected tropical diseases are present. Interested parties are encouraged to submit a letter of intent by Friday 26 Feb 2016.
Soil-transmitted helminths - such as roundworm (Ascaris), whipworm (Trichuris), and hookworm (Ancylostoma and Necator) - thrive in areas with warm, humid soil and poor sanitation. They are particularly prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and South and Central America.
These infections are major contributors to the disease burden of children living in many low and middle income countries, often resulting in school absenteeism, anaemia, lethargy, stunted growth and malnutrition.
According to estimates by the World Health Organization, more than 270 million pre-school-age children and 600 million school-age children live in areas where these parasites are transmitted intensively.
In part because of how rare these diseases are in developed countries, treatment and research programmes have attracted relatively little funding historically, despite the fact that prevention and treatment are often cheap.
Current efforts to treat soil-transmitted helminths focus on controlling the health impacts of these infections, usually through school-based mass drug administration programmes. However, recent studies have suggested that programmes with a far broader reach, including pre-school-age children and adults, might be necessary to interrupt the transmission of these infections.
'For years we have controlled these diseases by treating targeted individuals in order to keep the levels of infection intensity low and control the health impacts,' says Dr Walson.
'Now we believe we have the knowledge and tools required to actually move towards eliminating these infections from many populations.'
The DeWorm3 project will test the feasibility of eliminating soil-transmitted helminths and develop cost-effective methods for scaling up successful programmes.
'After the field trials have been conducted, we'll have a body of empirical data looking at how the life cycles of these parasitic worms can be interrupted,' says Dr Tim Littlewood, Head of Life Sciences at the Museum. 'This project will then directly inform policy advice as to how to scale these strategies up to a national level.'
The partnership with The Gates Foundation builds on the Natural History Museum's existing neglected tropical disease research.
Dr David Rollinson and his team have been deeply involved in efforts to understand and control schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic flatworms of the Schistosoma genus.
The Schistosomiasis Collection at the Natural History Museum (SCAN) has proved invaluable in this research, with the Museum currently recognised as a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for the expert identification of schistosome strains and their snail hosts.
Dr Walson says that DeWorm3 will also benefit from the Museum's extensive parasite collections:
'The ability to link the collections to disease-elimination efforts offers a tremendous opportunity to further this science, including understanding the distribution of these parasites, the potential for the development of drug resistance, and potentially offering the opportunity to identify new targets for drug development.'