Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an NZME. News Service reporter

Human parasites go under the microscope in new project

Dr Stephen Sowerby with a core component of his parasitic worm technology that has been boosted with US$1m funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Photo / supplied
Dr Stephen Sowerby with a core component of his parasitic worm technology that has been boosted with US$1m funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Photo / supplied

Parasites that live inside humans could find life a bit tougher in future, thanks to the University of Otago and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Worms count for an estimated one billion cases of human gastrointestinal infections worldwide, with 450 million of those cases causing significant illness, especially for children.

A unique University of Otago project, based on New Zealand technology developed for use on farm livestock, aims to simplify parasite diagnosis and improve treatments by reducing unnecessary drug usage.

Dr Stephen Sowerby, director of the Applied Science Programme at Otago University, is leading the research, which takes pictures, identifies, and counts the parasitic worm eggs in stool.

The researchers then send images by cellphone for quick, remote location analysis.

Now, the university has received a US$100,000 boost through one of more than 50 Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) Round 10 grants by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

GCE is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Foundation which backs individuals worldwide to find ways to solve persistent global health and development challenges.

"We've got a bit of technology here that has some real legs, and we're thrilled to be recognised by a group that has the wherewithal and capacity to deliver benefits to those who need it most around the world," Dr Sowerby said.

He will work with colleagues at the university's Centre for International Health, the company Menixis, and others to validate how well the new approach performs in humans compared to the standard McMaster test.

Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a GCE follow-on grant of up to US$1m, and Dr Sowerby says: "We're anticipating success."

"Parasitology is an enormous, neglected problem especially in the developing world, with around 1.5 million people per annum infected with intestinal parasites that can be diagnosed by this sort of technology."

- APNZ

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