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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Exploradio Origins: The Biggest Parasitic Disease You've Never Heard Of

photo of Ugandan Man holding infected snails
Bob Shaban, 37, holds a handful of freshwater snails pulled from the banks of Lake Victoria in Uganda.

The schistosome worm causes schistosomiasis, which just might be the biggest parasitic disease you’ve never heard of.

“You get it walking in water that's infected with infectious snails,” said Emmitt Jolly,  associate professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University.

“There are almost 240 million people infected with schistosomes, and about 300,000 people are dying.”

Jolly is unravelling the genetics of the schistosome to find ways to attack it with drugs. Step one is to figure out which genes do what.   

“Our lab developed over-expression technology in schistosomes. You put in a gene, and over-express that gene,” Jolly said. “Whatever targets that that gene normally turns on now get up-regulated, and it gives you a clue as to what the function of that gene is.”

By turning up a gene, or over-expressing it, you make it easier to see what that gene might be doing in the organism. Jolly’s next step is to take advantage of recently developed CRISPR-Cas gene-editing technology, which took longer to get to work in the schistosomes.

“When you talk about something that, all of the single-cell stages are inside an organ, deep inside a vein, inside a human body, or deep inside of a mouse, it becomes a lot more challenging,” Jolly said. “Eventually we will figure this little problem out, and then be able to look at new targets and development therapies for schistosomes.”

Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.