Why Wolbachia?

Oocyte of disease-causing heartworm from a dog. Wolbachia (green dots) are bacteria symbionts essential for worm survival. Courtesy: Sullivan Lab.

Cell biology studies could offer high-impact solutions for neglected tropical diseases that afflict the “bottom billion,” the poorest people in the poorest countries, wrote UC Santa Cruz biologist William Sullivan in an essay published in Molecular Biology of the Cell.

For example, when researchers discovered that a bacterial parasite of worms caused the debilitating inflammatory reactions of African River Blindness—not the roundworms that migrated into human tissue—the door opened for treatment with common antibiotics.

Sullivan’s team developed the high-throughput screening method to hunt for drugs that might kill this sneaky bacteria, called Wolbachia. In collaboration with the UC Santa Cruz chemical screening center, they found an FDA-approved drug that killed Wolbachia. The same drug also kills the long-lived worms because they need the bacteria to survive.

Now Sullivan’s team, in collaboration with the California Institute for Biomedical Research, is screening more than 170,000 compounds for even more potent anti-Wolbachia treatments. With further study, Sullivan hopes to better understand how the parasitic bacteria manipulates its host worm, and find drugs to disrupt those interactions.

“The goal is to find a drug that could be used once, or yearly; something suitable for a mass drug administration campaign,” said Sullivan.