Published on 5 February 2015
A Canadian biologist has arrived at USC this week for a collaborative research project that could help save hundreds of thousands of lives in developing nations.
Dr Russell Wyeth of St Francis Xavier University has received an Australian Government Endeavour Fellowship to spend six months with a USC team, led by Dr Scott Cummins, that aims to “sniff out” a possible solution to the deadly disease schistosomiasis.
This disease – also known as snail fever – is spread by freshwater snails that host the parasitic worm larvae and live in water that is used by humans.
Dr Cummins warmly welcomed Dr Wyeth to USC for the project that will assess if the scent given off by snails plays a key role in the transmission of the parasitic worms that currently infect millions of people across Africa and in parts of Asia and South America.
“Schistosomiasis is second only to malaria for a parasitic disease with the greatest economic impact,” said Dr Cummins of USC’s Genecology Research Centre. “In contaminated water the parasites penetrate human skin, live in blood vessels where eggs are released and cause immune reactions and potentially fatal damage to organs.
“The parasites are released by infected Biomphalaria snails and we plan to use our understanding of the snail pheromones to develop a way to stop parasite transmission by interfering with their ability to communicate.”
According to the World Health Organisation, 42.1 million people were treated for schistosomiasis in 2012 and 249 million received preventative treatment.
Dr Wyeth said he applied to work at USC for his Fellowship after writing a book chapter with Dr Cummins last year and seeing the potential for ongoing collaborations between the two scientists and their research students.
“I’m really excited about the questions we hope to answer over the six months I’m at USC,” said Dr Wyeth. “The molecular techniques and tools used in Scott’s lab open up all sorts of fascinating possibilities for me.
“I have not yet worked with Biomphalaria and look forward to broadening my research program to include these snails that host such a devastating parasite.
“I will share with Scott and his team my expertise in snail olfaction (sense of smell) and aquatic animal behaviour experiments, particularly using time-lapse video and possibly electrophysiology – recording the activity of neurons associated with the behaviours we observe.”
Dr Wyeth, whose wife and children will also live in Australia for six months, is usually based at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Canada where the average temperature in January is -10 to 0 degrees.
This is his first trip to Australia and he has a long list of things he is looking forward to.
“Not shovelling snow, the weather, culture, new science, new flora and fauna, new opportunities for the kids and diving the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.
Endeavour Fellowships are internationally competitive scholarships funded by the Australian Government to build Australia’s reputation for excellence in the provision of education and support the internationalisation of the Australian higher education and research sectors.
— Jane Cameron