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Last Updated: Monday, 7 November 2005, 00:28 GMT
Scientists hail worms discovery
Laboratory technician - generic
The university has received funding worth more than 1m
Experts at Edinburgh University believe that tiny worms could hold the key to new treatments for conditions like asthma and hay fever.

They have found that the parasites, called helminths, could fool the body's immune system so that they were not attacked.

Scientists hope to copy the worms' survival tactics as they work on suppressing allergic reactions.

The aim would be to reduce the need for drugs or vaccinations.

The scientists said it was the first time a breakthrough of its kind had been explored to curb tropical diseases, such as filariasis and schistosomiasis, which affect one in four people in the world.

Perhaps we can borrow a trick from parasites
Professor Rick Maizels
Edinburgh University

The team has been focusing on the role played by regulatory cells, which protect the body.

The cells decide when to stop the immune system from attacking the body's own proteins and also prevent it from attacking harmless molecules.

It is thought that helminths produce molecules that trigger a response in regulatory cells, which tricks the body into switching off the response that would kill the parasites.

The university's School of Biological Sciences has been awarded 1.3m by the Wellcome Trust to carry out the research.

'Developed world'

Professor Rick Maizels said: "Perhaps we can borrow a trick from parasites and employ the molecules which suppress the immune system to treat these auto-immune disorders.

"The project therefore offers potential for new treatments of diseases in both the developed world and the disadvantaged countries of the tropics."

The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Scientists in the United States discovered last year that helminths, such as roundworms and threadworms, may prevent the inflammatory bowel disorder Crohn's disease.

The National Association for Colitis and Crohn's Disease expressed interest in the research, published in the journal Gut.

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09 Dec 03 |  Scotland

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