Genetic manipulation could one day be used to improve treatment for major neglected tropical diseases. This is according to a new study into the genomes of the parasitic flatworms that cause schistosomiasis.

Schistosomiasis, a disease caused by the infestation of parasitic flatworms, afflicts more than 200 million people worldwide, mostly in developing countries. Researchers hope to expand existing medication options by developing new treatments that target key genes in the parasite. However, a complex life cycle makes parasitic flatworms difficult to maintain in a lab, thwarting efforts to determine the function of specific genes.

Published in PLOS Pathogens, researchers from George Washington University, Washington DC used a modified HIV-1 virus to infect a major species of shistosomiasis-causing flatworm. Next generation sequencing revealed that the HIV-1 genetic material had integrated itself throughout the flatworm genome, including into sex chromosomes. 

plasmodium schistosomiasis HIV-1

Sergey Iordanskiy

“The report,” the authors explain, “reveals that HIV-1 is active with cells of schistosomes, causative agent of the major neglected tropical disease schistosomiasis. The report also demonstrated, for the first time, the integration of HIV-1 into the chromosomes of an invertebrate.”

This study opens up the possibility of using virus-based methods to block expression of specific flatworm genes, reveal their function, and affect viability and fertility.