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For immediate release
Tuesday 26 May 2015
£3.7 million awarded to international
consortium led by Aberystwyth scientist to
combat flatworm infections
The Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest private funder of biomedical and veterinary
research, has awarded a 5-year, £3.7M Biomedical Sciences Strategic Award to an
international team of scientists from the UK, Germany, France and the USA led by
Professor Karl Hoffmann at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological,
Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS).
The project entitled ‘the Flatworm Functional Genomics Initiative (FUGI)’ will develop
game-changing research tools for the study and manipulation of parasitic flatworm
species responsible for the devastating diseases echinococcosis (hydatid disease) and
schistosomiasis (bilharzia), and is set to propel flatworm research into the 21st century.
Professor Hoffmann has won the funding in collaboration with Dr Matthew Berriman at
the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (WTSI), Dr Ludovic Vallier at the University of
Cambridge, Professor Christoph Grunau at University of Perpignan and the Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Professor Klaus Brehm at the University of
Wuerzburg, Dr James Collins at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center,
Professor Christoph Grevelding at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen and Professor Paul
Brindley at George Washington University.
On winning this prestigious award Professor Hoffmann commented “We are incredibly
pleased that the Wellcome Trust has selected our team to develop these cutting-edge
resources, which will revolutionise our ability to study and manipulate parasitic
flatworms including blood flukes and tapeworms.
“Creation of these molecular and cellular tools will attract new investigators into our field
and increase the rate and number of significant biological discoveries; many of which will
lead to the identification of novel control strategies.
“Parasitic flatworms cause some of the most debilitating infectious diseases on our
planet and are responsible for significant and oppressive burdens in both humans and
livestock. While existing control is primarily based on chemotherapy, there is a real risk
that this strategy is unsustainable due to the generation of parasites resistant to the
limited drugs currently being used.”
Significant investment by the Wellcome Trust in flatworm genome sequencing projects
over the past 20 years has provided a critical boost for research in this neglected area.
These initiatives are beginning to transform the field of helminthology (the study of
parasitic flatworms) and offer hope that new strategies for controlling these infectious
diseases will soon be identified.
However, as Professor Hoffmann cautions, “The challenge facing researchers mining
flatworm genomic information is the lack of suitable tools to effectively characterise the
function of flatworm gene products and translate this information into urgently needed
drugs or vaccines that can be used within both biomedical and veterinary arenas. This is
severely hampering research progress”.
To overcome this challenge, Professor Hoffmann and his research collaborators in the
FUGI project will generate the very first tools to functionally manipulate parasitic
flatworm genomes using the genome-editing, CRISPR/Cas system.
These techniques will enable the flatworm community to conduct the gene-level
investigations necessary for fully understanding how each gene participates in the
complexities of flatworm development, host interactions and the development of disease.
The FUGI consortium will also use their combined expertise to create flatworm stem cells
that will, for the very first time, allow investigators to study flatworm biology in the lab,
without the need for maintaining complicated parasite lifecycles in an animal host.
Together, the creation and application of such transformative tools will allow
helminthologists to make tremendous strides towards developing urgently-needed, nextgeneration anthelmintic drugs and vaccines.
Never before has such a diverse team of international experts been brought together in
this way to combat the debilitating diseases caused by flatworm parasites.
By producing new translational tools and resources, FUGI researchers will provide the
helminth community with the flexible experimental systems that are urgently needed if
they are to finally stop the devastating effects of these pathogens on both human and
animal populations.
Dr Michael Chew, Science Portfolio Advisor at the Wellcome Trust, said: “Parasitic worms
cause serious illness and long-term disability throughout the developing world, yet
progress on new treatments and vaccines has been frustratingly slow. FUGI is set to
change this, by enabling scientists to manipulate flatworm genes in the lab for the first
time. The ultimate aim is to identify chinks in the flatworm armour that could be
targeted with new medicines that help eradicate the devastating diseases they cause.”
Professor Mike Gooding, Director of IBERS said: “I am delighted about the award of this
grant which reflects much of the strengths at Aberystwyth targeted at improving
the health of animals and people. We are particularly pleased to receive this support for
work that directly links cutting-edge biology with real-life benefits for society. The
project demonstrates the value of our international collaborations and partnerships for
providing global expertise and impact.”
Professor Karl Hoffmann, Professor of Parasitology at IBERS
Professor Karl Hoffman and his team at IBERS
Further Information:
Professor Karl F. Hoffmann, IBERS, Aberystwyth University.
+44 01970 622237 [email protected]
Dawn Havard, IBERS Communications, Aberystwyth University
01970 628440 / 07779 645598 / [email protected]
Arthur Dafis, Communications and Public Affairs, Aberystwyth University
01970 621763 / 07841 979 452 / [email protected]
Notes to Editors
Echinococcosis and schistosomiasis are included amongst the 17 major neglected tropical
diseases (NTDs) listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and have been
historically considered restricted to the tropics and sub-tropics. However, due to
favourable changes in climatic patterns, suitable habitats for transmission of these
parasites are now expanding into and throughout Europe. It is, thus, clear that these
globally relevant parasitic diseases need new solutions for their prevention and control,
especially against the background of a very limited number of drugs available for
treatment, the justified fear of upcoming resistance, and the absence of vaccines.
The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) is an
internationally recognised research and teaching centre providing a unique base for
research in response to global challenges such as food security, bioenergy and
sustainability, and the impacts of climate change. IBERS scientists conduct basic,
strategic and applied research from genes and molecules to organisms and the
IBERS receives strategic research funding of £10.5m from the BBSRC to support long
term mission driven research, and is a member of the National Institutes of Bioscience.
IBERS also benefits from financial support from the Welsh Government, DEFRA and the
European Union.
Aberystwyth University
Established in 1872, Aberystwyth is a leading teaching and research university and was
awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2009. It is 35th
in the UK for ‘Research Quality’ (Sunday Times University Guide 2015) and won the
award for Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology at the Times Higher
Education Awards 2013. The University is a community of 12,000 students and 2,300
staff and is about creating opportunities, research with excellence that makes an impact,
teaching that inspires, engaging the world, working in partnership and investing in our
future. Registered charity No 1145141.