In March of 2012, a 12-year old boy from Minia, Egypt was admitted to the emergency room of Minia University Hospital. He was pale, appeared poorly nourished, and for 3 days had been suffering from constipation and vomiting, combined with severe abdominal pain.
When he underwent abdominal ultrasonography, parallel paired lines resembling railway tracks were found in his intestines, suggesting the presence of worms. And sure enough, after a lengthy operation, a total of 53 roundworms were extracted out of him. Thirty of those worms were adult males and 23 were adult females.
The worms in question were of a species called Ascaris lumbricoides, an ascarid nematode responsible for causing the disease Ascariasis in humans, with symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhea. It affects up to 1.3 billion individuals, and the worms are the most common parasitic worm in the human population.
As prevalent as this parasite is, however, very little research has been done in terms of preventative measures against it. Gwendoline Deslyper, a PhD student in Trinity College, hopes to change that. She has recently won the Frank Jeal studentship award, and with it she will focus her work on Ascaris.
“Hardly anyone has heard of it,” Deslypers peaking to Trinity News. And it is true. Being a neglected tropical disease means that Ascaris is often overlooked, despite it being widespread worldwide, especially in low-income populations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The 12-year old boy mentioned earlier, for example, came from a very poor socioeconomic background. Social stigma against the disease and its “non-commerciality” means that treatment and research are hard to come by.
More than that, any resources that these countries have would be allocated to the “big three” diseases- HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, instead of these neglected tropical diseases. “One billion people have it, and there’s hardly any research done on it. Nobody really seems to care that much about it even though it’s got such a big impact in the world,” Deslyper explained. “Probably, people that have it don’t realise what the name of their disease is.”
Deslyper, who describes herself as “a willing host for all things parasitology,” has always had a fascination with parasites, even going as far back as her days in secondary school. “I’ve always been very interested in tropical diseases and neglected tropical diseases in particular,” she says. “I feel like [parasites] have their own little minds, especially Ascaris.
It’s got a whole pathway it has to go through in the body before it can become an adult.” Deslyper received her undergraduate degree in Belgium, and after working for a number of years in a state-funded lab, she decided to go back to school to pursue a graduate degree. When she moved to Trinity, she met parasitologist professor Celia Holland, who has worked with Ascaris for many years.
Deslyper is now involved in a collaborative research project between Professor Holland and Professor James Carolan of Maynooth University. Their work focuses on human resistance and susceptibility to Ascaris, using mouse models. The team is studying Ascaris suum, a species of Ascaris that infects pigs.
Using two strains of mice, one resistant and the other susceptible to the roundworm, they had previously found that the fate of the worm inside the organism is highly dependent on the proteins found in the host. They found that a higher abundance of mitochondrial proteins exists in the resistant strain (Day 4 post-infection) which is related to the strain’s oxygen tolerances. They then concluded that the variation in infection levels in mice is dependent on these mitochondrial proteins.
What mystifies the scientists is that they found very little immunological proteins at Day 4 post-infection. To explain this mystery, Deslyper has two possible theories. “It could be because we were looking too early,” she explains. “Day 4 post-infection may just be too early to see [the proteins]. Or maybe it’s the liver.” The central role of the liver in Ascaris infection has already been alluded to in the previous paper that Deslyper and her team has published, but its staggering importance has only now been realized.
According to Deslyper, the liver has a “special immune status,” which was discovered when research was being done on liver transplants. “You don’t have to be a perfect match, actually, to get a liver transplantation from someone else,” she says. “That could be the reason why the parasite goes there, because it can hide [from the immune system].” Deslyper and her team are now studying Day 7 post-infection, and are attempting to see if there are more immunological proteins in this time frame. “We actually do, at this point,” Deslyper says. “But we are still analysing the data.”
Deslyper hopes to continue her work in the future, moving from Ascaris suum to Ascaris lumbricoides, the species of Ascaris that infects humans. Deslyper and her team want to learn if Ascaris suum has the same migratory pathway as Ascaris lumbricoides. She is hopeful: “We think it will be the same.” Deslyper attributes this idea to the fact that the two species are very similar in how they manifest in organisms that they infect.
“In humans,” Deslyper remarks, “some will be heavily infected while other people won’t. It’s the same in pigs. Some pigs will be heavily infected and some pigs don’t.” Deslyper also hopes to explore the differences in the immunological responses of the resistant strain and that of a susceptible strain.
With Deslyper studying in the field of parasitology in Trinity, comparisons have been drawn between her and the Nobel Laureate William Campbell, with Trinity itself remarking that Deslyper “seeks to tread in Nobel Prize winner’s footsteps.”
When asked about these comparisons, Deslyper laughs, saying, “I’m very nervous about it.” Deslyper says that it is an honour to be compared to a person who many people consider to be one of the most brilliant scientists of our time. “It’s very inspirational to be in the same place as he was,” Deslyper says, “and hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to achieve something as good as he has.”
Having just been chosen as a recipient of the Frank Jeal studentship award, Deslyper finds herself in a comfortable position in the next three years. “I’ve got the funding now for this PhD and I’m just trying to enjoy it for the moment,” she says. “Just enjoy the next three years of working on Ascaris and working on parasites, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Deslyper admits that there has been little stability in the scientific field in recent years.
“There’s definitely job insecurity, lack of funding, [and] there’s a problem that once you’re entering the post-doc field, you often get very short-term contracts [and] you have to move around to different countries,” Deslyper tells Trinity News. “I think that that’s pushing a lot of people out of academia.”
When it comes to the careers of women in science, Deslyper also recognizes that while the problem is not evident in lower levels of academia, it manifests itself a lot more as women progress in their fields. “The further you try to get ahead,” she says, “[the number of women] dwindles down. There are less and less women in there.”
However, she says that she has been very fortunate in having Professor Celia Holland as a mentor. “She’s such an incredible woman,” she says of Holland, who she mentions is part of the Athena Swan Committee for Equality. “She’s always behind me, so I don’t experience any discrimination or anything like that.”
Deslyper hopes that her work will enable to help the public understand parasites and understand how to treat them when humans are infected, especially in developing countries. “I do really hope the paper and our subsequent work will have a huge impact on what we know about the parasite and hopefully step towards eliminating and eradicating the parasite,” says Deslyper. “That’s the goal- to have even a small impact.”