'We now have a more complete picture of just how this worm invades the body, begins feeding on the blood, and successfully evades the host immune defences', said Dr Makedonka Mitreva of the Washington University in St Louis, USA, who led the study.
Hookworm infections affect ten percent of the world's population. Although they have been kept in check with drugs, there are many areas where the parasite has become resistant, and infections are spreading. They rarely lead to death, but are very dangerous to pregnant women, causing anaemia and malnutrition, and they delay the development of affected children.
The scientists identified the proteins that allow hookworm larvae to enter the human body through skin, as well as those needed by the adult hookworm to feed on blood in the gut.
The team also found which proteins help the hookworm evade the body's defence mechanisms: SCP/TAP proteins. These are thought to be crucial to hookworm survival and therefore make ideal drug targets. Because they are involved in suppressing the host's immune system, they are also being investigated as potential treatments for auto-immune and inflammatory diseases.
'It is our hope that the new research can be used as a springboard not just to control hookworm infections but to identify anti-inflammatory molecules that have the potential to advance new therapies for autoimmune and allergic diseases', added Dr Mitreva.
The scientists also screened a class of drugs known as protein kinase inhibitors to find out their effects on hookworms' cell function. They found that more than 200 of these drugs could be effective in fighting hookworms, with the most promising candidate currently used in treating leukemia.
The study was published in Nature Genetics.