Biological sciences professor combats parasitic worms through research

May 30, 2013 | News, Research, UToday, Natural Sciences and Mathematics
By Meghan Cunningham

More than two billion people worldwide are infected by parasitic worms, which also cause billions of dollars in damage to crops and livestock.



Dr. Richard Komuniecki, Distinguished University Professor of Biological Sciences and Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson II Endowed Professor in Biomedical Research, has received a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to study these parasitic worms, or nematodes.

These Gates grants are designed to foster technological innovation to solve key health problems in the developing world. Komuniecki is one of only 58 investigators, out of thousands of applicants from around the globe, funded in this Round 10 Grand Challenges Explorations grant program.

“Parasitic nematodes also infect livestock and most plants, in addition to humans, and only recently has their negative impact on human productivity been fully appreciated. In many cases, we lack effective chemotherapy to control these infections and, more importantly, for those that we do, resistance is appearing rapidly,” he said.

Komuniecki, who joined the UT faculty in 1980, has long studied parasitic nematodes to identify drug targets that could be used to paralyze or kill them. The Gates grant will support his innovative approach to screen for new drugs by expressing receptors from the parasitic nematodes in the more genetically tractable free-living nematode, Caenorhabitis elegans.

Caenorhabditis elegans, more commonly referred to as C. elegans, was one of the first multicellular organisms to have its genome completely sequenced and has been used as a model in the past to identify key processes in mammals. Komuniecki and his team will use these “chimeric” nematodes, expressing key drug targets from the parasites in the free-living C. elegans, in high-throughput screens designed to identify compounds that selectively inhibit movement or feeding.

The research could lead to new methods for screening and the identification of new drugs and drug targets; however, Komuniecki is more interested in understanding the basic biology of the nematodes.

“The more that we know about how movement and feeding are controlled in these animals, the better able we will be to identify new drug targets,” Komuniecki said.

His research in this area continuously has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 1981, and in addition to the Grand Challenges Explorations grant, Komuniecki just received $356,000 from a High Priority, Short-Term Project R56 Award from the NIH to continue his basic research on the role of the nervous system in controlling locomotion and feeding in nematodes.

For this research, Komuniecki collaborates with Dr. Patricia Komuniecki, dean of the College of Graduate Studies and vice provost for graduate affairs, and Dr. Bruce Bamber, associate professor of biological sciences.

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