World James Cook University to genetically modify intestinal worms to protect US military personnel from bioweapons

03:12  29 july  2021
03:12  29 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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The US government is funding research at James Cook University to improve troops' protection against biological and chemical weapons using parasitic worms . Key points: James Cook University will research whether modified parasites can protect troops from bioweapons . The US government will pay the university $ US 2.5 million over five years. Alex Loukas has been researching parasites for a decade and says the research will not "have anything to do with bioterrorism agents".

US civilian personnel performing work at The Lugar Center have also been given diplomatic immunity, although they are not diplomats. Hence, private companies can perform work, under diplomatic cover, for the US government without being under the direct control of the host state «In a statement, the university announced it had received a request to develop a vaccine from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which describes itself as “an innovative partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil organisations” which seeks to develop vaccines to protect the world

Alex Loukas has been studying the health properties of intestinal worms for more than a decade but says his team was surprised to hear from the United States Department of Defence when it got in touch recently.

The US government was interested in working with Professor Loukas and James Cook University to improve troops' protection against biological and chemical weapons.

It has granted the university's Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine $US2.5 million, across five years, to create parasitic worms that can internally protect personnel through constant secretion of antibodies.

Professor Loukas says the project is at its very start, but early evidence suggests a process of genetic engineering could be possible.

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The USA -Georgia agreement accords diplomatic status to the US military and civilian personnel (including diplomatic vehicles), working on the Pentagon program in Georgia. Melioidosis has the potential to be developed as a biological weapon , hence it is classed as a category B. Bioterrorism Agent. B. Pseudomallei was studied by the US as a potential bioweapon in the past. Besides the military experiments at the Lugar Center in Georgia, Battelle has already produced bioterrorism agents at the Biosafety Level 4 NBACC Top Secret Laboratory at Fort Detrick in the US .

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'Tiny factories' to work inside troops

Professor Loukas said the project would be made possible through a recently developed genetic modification technology called CRISPR-Cas9.

"You can introduce a foreign gene into an organism's genome, or you can knock out a gene using this technology and colleagues of ours in the US have recently applied this to parasitic worms," he said.

Professor Loukas said the genetically modified parasites would be able to secrete antibodies that are already well known.

"There are various antibodies that are available in the public domain that have been shown to have anti-anthrax properties or anti-organophosphate drug properties," he said.

"But where this project is different is, we're going to be trying to engineer a parasite to secrete those into the infected personnel to protect them from any exposure they might encounter."

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They’re the most common type of intestinal worm infection in the U . S ., and one of the most common in the world. They’re thin and white, and about one-quarter to one-half inch long -- about as long as a staple. Tapeworms are flat worms that look a bit like ribbons. Once inside your body, pinworms make a home in your colon and rectum. At night, female worms come outside to lay eggs in the skin around your anus. If you scratch the area, the eggs get on your fingers or under your nails, then wipe off on the next thing you touch. This is why pinworms are spread so easily among young children.

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Professor Loukas says the process of delivering antibodies through a worm is most useful in a military scenario because the worms are constantly producing.

"[They are] tiny little factories that are sitting inside the infected volunteer and they're constantly secreting these therapeutic molecules into the body," he said.

"They can just sit there and hopefully churn out the required amounts of these antibodies as opposed to a vaccination strategy which is quite different."

Naturally occurring worms

Previously, Professor Loukas studied parasitic worms in the context of diabetes, cancer and autoimmune research.

He said previous research has shown, when there is a known number of worms, that the worms can have properties that balance overactive immune systems.

Professor Loukas said parasitic infections became harmful when they uncontrollably reproduced inside a human body, which was not possible in this scenario.

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The US Army has been deployed to Vaziani Military Air Base, 17 km away from the Pentagon bio-laboratory at The Lugar Center. Georgia is a testing ground for bioweapons . A NBACC presentation lists 16 research priorities for the lab. Amongst them to characterize classical, emerging and genetically engineered pathogens for their BTA ( biological threat agent) potential; assess the nature of nontraditional, novel and non-endemic induction of disease from potential BTA and to expand aerosol-challenge testing capacity for non-human primates.

"Because these worms, in particular, don't reproduce inside you, we're able to experimentally infect healthy subjects here in Australia with a known number of worms and it's all those people are ever going to experience," he said.

"They're not going to have a massive outbreak inside their body."

Professor Loukas said the only side effect was minor gastrointestinal pain.

He has infected hundreds of people with worms for research over the years and more than 90 per cent tolerate them well.

Professor Loukas said the studies would not be about testing with bioweapons, rather about creating the worms to be the vehicle for antibodies.

"None of the work we'll be doing here will have anything to do with bioterrorism agents," he said.

"We're just going to be infecting people with naturally occurring worms just to establish some safety and tolerability studies.

"A human clinical trial with genetically modified worms is a long way down the track and there are many regulatory hurdles we have to overcome before we enter that final phase of the program."

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