Researchers have sequenced the genome of a parasitic worm that is estimated to cost the UK sheep industry alone more than £80 million each year in an effort to understand drug resistance in worms.

Researchers have sequenced the genome of a parasitic worm that is estimated to cost the UK sheep industry alone more than £80 million each year in an effort to understand drug resistance in worms.

Barber's pole worm - credit: Moredun Research InstituteThe barber’s pole worm (Haemonchus contortus) resides in the gut of sheep and other livestock globally and is currently resistant to all major treatments.

However, an international group of researchers – funded by the Wellcome Trust and involving teams from Canada, Japan, USA and the UK – has identified five enzymes that are essential to the survival of the worm and could offer targets for new drug therapies. Two of these enzymes are already being studied as potential drug targets; one against Mycobacterium tuberculosis and another against another type of worm.

The barber’s pole worm is part of a family of gastrointestinal worms that are endemic on 100% of farms, so researchers claim its genome could provide a comprehensive understanding of how treatments against parasitic worms work and point to further new treatments and vaccines.

Dr James Cotton, senior author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said: “Our reference genome allows researchers to understand how H contortus and other worms of this type acquire resistance to a wide range of anthelmintics – the drugs used to treat worm infections.”

The team sequenced the genome of a strain of H contortus that was susceptible to all major classes of drugs against parasitic worms and, by comparing this sequence with those of worms that have acquired drug resistance, expect to reveal a wealth of information about how and why resistance has occurred.

Prof Neil Sargison from the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies said: “Getting to grips with genomes such as that of H contortus is our best option to tackle the issue of drug resistance and develop new drugs against parasitic worms to address this issue.”

The barber’s pole worm is closely related to many other livestock parasites and is also similar to some species of worms in humans, making it an extremely important model parasite species for experimental studies.

Prof John Gilleard from the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine said: “Revealing new drug targets against H contortus could provide much-needed new treatment opportunities against parasitic worms in both animals and humans.”

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