In the future military units could rely on parasites to protect them from enemy weapons after the United States government gave two of Australia’s leading researchers almost $US2.5 million ($A3.4 million) to research the potential of worms and other parasitic organisms to help combat chemical and biological weapons.
Prof. Alex Loukas and Dr. Paul Giacomin from James Cook University received the funding from the US Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and will investigate the use of helminths—parasitic worms that infect up to 2 billion people around the world—to protect military personnel against bioterrorism agents.
“Your naturally occurring wild type ‘hookworm’ doesn’t secrete anything that will naturally protect against bioterrorism agents such as anthrax or Ebola virus,” Loukas told AAP. “We can engineer the worm’s genome so that it will secrete therapeutic molecules that will protect against those different bioterrorism agents.”
Loukas, who is a molecular parasitologist, said the project will hopefully reduce the amount of equipment that needs to be carried or worn by military personnel and medical first responders in conflict zones to protect them against bioterrorism agents.
He has been working on infecting human volunteers in Australia with hookworms for more than 10 years, but this new untested research is the first time genetically modified worms will be trialled.
“It’s certainly a collaborative effort with our colleagues, particularly in the US and Europe who are doing the genetic engineering aspects,” he said.
“We bring the expertise to the project with human experimental infections with parasitic worms.”
Loukas notes that the threat of bioterrorism is becoming more realistic as military technology advances and that it is a clear advantage to “have an internal biological solution to counter threats when they suddenly appear.”
Six other international universities and companies are involved in the multi-million dollar program, which was initially conceived by Loukas and his US colleague Professor Paul Brindley at George Washington University.
JCU’s funding is part of a $US16.4 million ($A22.3 million) contract awarded to research and development company Charles River Analytics from the US Government’s DARPA.