Science has a new weapon in the global war against parasitic worms that kill hundreds of thousands or people annually: xWORM.
While testing various drugs, parasitologists spend interminable hours staring down microscopes, checking whether the worms are dead or alive after being exposed to the drug. Researchers have been looking for an accurate and efficient way to do that on a large scale, according to Dr Michael Smout from JCU's Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine.
Inspiration struck when Dr Smout was using another piece of laboratory equipment, an xCELLigence E-Plate® commonly used to monitor cell proliferation in cancers. "I looked at the E-Plate I was using and I thought, if these can count cell proliferation, maybe we can find a way to use them to count wiggling worms," he said.
Dr Smout worked with scientists from ACEA Biosciences and George Washington University where the E-Plate® and the xCELLigence system were originally developed.
"An E-Plate is an electronic plate containing gold microelectrodes and a number of wells. With some adaptation, we found we could place parasitic worms into the wells, add a drug, and then use the xCELLigence system to measure the motility, or amount of worm wiggle," Smout said.
Despite containing gold microelectrodes, E-Plates have proven cost-effective because they can be cleaned and re-used, meaning it costs only US$0.05 to perform each test.
Working with the ACEA Bioscience team, the JCU researchers have tweaked their xCELLigence system for parasites and dubbed it xWORM - which stands for xCELLigence Worm Real-time Motility Assay.
Dr Smout said the system was widely applicable to parasitic worms. "It's easy to learn and simple to use. My lab is using it as part of our investigations of the different life cycle stages of the blood fluke parasite Schistosoma mansoni, which is also known in tropical tourist hotspots as bilharzia or snail fever," he said.