Worms to protect troops from bio weapons

Prof Alex Loukas is conducting research into the use of parasites to help combat biological weapons.
Prof Alex Loukas is conducting research into the use of parasites to help combat biological weapons.

Two leading Australian researchers have received nearly $US2.5 million ($A3.4 million) to conduct research into the use of parasites to help combat chemical and biological weapons.

Professor Alex Loukas and Dr Paul Giacomin from James Cook University are investigating the use of helminths to protect military personnel against bioterrorism agents.

Helminths are parasitic worms that live inside human bodies and have been known to infect up to two billion people in developing countries.

The funding comes from the US Government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

"Your naturally occurring wild type 'bookworm' doesn't secrete anything that will naturally protect against bioterrorism agents such as anthrax or Ebola virus," Prof Loukas told AAP.

"We can engineer the worms genome so that it will secrete therapeutic molecules that will protect against those different bioterrorism agents."

Professor Loukas, a molecular parasitologist, says the project is intended to reduce the burden of personal equipment worn or carried by members of the military 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.

"Whereas we bring the expertise to the project with human experimental infections with parasitic worms."

He said with advancements in military technology, the threat of bioterrorism agents will become more common.

"It is clearly an advantage to have an internal biological solution to counter threats when they suddenly appear," he said.

Six other international universities and companies are involved in the multi-million dollar program, which was initially conceived by Prof 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.

Australian Associated Press