Oct. 26, 2017

VetMed researcher uses genomic technology to battle a costly cattle parasite

James Wasmuth uses a parasite's own DNA to find a drug to kill it
James Wasmuthis using genomic technology in the search for a drug to fight a costly parasite Jager & Kokemor

A researcher in the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) is using genomic technology in the search for a drug to fight a parasite that costs the cattle industry worldwide billions of dollars a year.

“One aspect of my research program is to develop new drugs to treat parasites of livestock and specifically helminths — parasitic roundworms — which cost the Canadian cattle industry an estimated $210 million a year,” says James Wasmuth,associate professor of host-parasite interactions at UCVM. “This is in lost production as well as treatment. The cost in the U.S. is around $2 billion, and in Brazil it’s a $7 billion-a-year problem for their beef industry.” 

Helminths live inside the intestines of cattle, feeding off their ‘hosts,’ causing reduced growth rate, weight loss, diarrhea and sometimes anaemia. These soil-transmitted parasites are common in grazing cattle but there are only a few drugs that work to combat them.

James Wasmuth's research project has more than a million dollars in funding over the next three year

Jager & Kokemor

The emergence of drug-resistant parasites

“We’re seeing the emergence of parasites that are resistant to these drugs,” says Wasmuth. “At some point these drugs are going to be ineffective and when that happens, the estimated cost to the Canadian cattle industry is $1 billion, which is a pretty big problem.”

Wasmuth was awarded a $735,000 research grant by Alberta Innovates as part of a provincial government investment into genomics technology research to help the Alberta economy. With additional funding from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, the University of Calgary and the NSERC CREATE program in Host-Parasite Interactions, his project has more than a million dollars over the next three years “to go from genome to drug.”

“It’s a highly ambitious and collaborative project,” Wasmuth says. “We’re recruiting five postdoctoral scholars and it involves seven PIs in the Faculties of Veterinary Medicine and Science and the Cumming School of Medicine. We’re going from the genome, using genomic technology, bioinformatics, chemoinformatics, and molecular genetics in the shape of CRISPR technology to understand the biochemistry of the parasite. If we can identify key components in its chemical makeup, we can then look to identify a drug compound that targets this particular protein.”

Screening millions of drug compounds to find an effective worm killer

The next step involves using computer algorithms to screen millions of drug compounds to see if they impact the parasitic worm’s biology.

“So instead of taking millions of compounds and just throwing them on millions of worms, we’ll have maybe five compounds we can study in detail and see what happens to these worms when we subject them to these potential drugs. Does it kill the worm, does the worm become stunted, does the drug prevent the worm from moving?”

Wasmuth is hopeful a handful of drug compounds will be identified as potential drugs against the parasite. “Our expertise stops at a certain point,” he says. “I’m not promising a wonder drug. I’m saying we will identify up to five things that could be the next wonder drug and then we need to team up with an industry partner to go from what we think will work, to what will actually work.”