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Brunel awarded £100,000 to develop an artificial snail that could save 200 million lives


Brunel University, London has been awarded $100,000 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help find a solution for Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which strikes 243 million people worldwide, and has the second largest human health impact after malaria.

In order to become infectious to humans, the parasite must infect and transform within snails living in rivers. Having completed its life cycle in the snail, the parasite then returns to the water where it infects unsuspecting people by burrowing through their skin. Brunel’s Dr Edwin Routledge has come up with an unconventional way to combat this, by developing an artificial ‘decoy’ snail which interrupts the parasite lifecycle to reduce transmission rates to humans. 

In order to achieve this, the research will use bioassay directed fractionation techniques to isolate and identify specific chemicals released by the snail that attract the parasite towards it. These chemicals will ultimately be introduced into a biodegradable artificial snail. Being chemically indistinguishable to the parasites from live snails, the artificial snail will effectively draw the parasites into it, and away from the actual snail host. Once inside the artificial snail the parasite will be unable to replicate. This break in the life cycle of the disease will reduce transmission of the parasite to humans by reducing the population of infected snails.

To date, approaches to tackling this disease have included improved sanitation and hygiene, or snail control through the use of molluscicides which could have negative impacts on the river ecology and also local fishing. In addition, treatment of humans with an antihelmintic drug (Praziquantel) is effective only as long as people stay away from the infected river.

As a leading light in research into the impact of chemicals in rivers and with an established body of snail research, this exciting research work will find a natural home at Brunel.  Dr Routledge, who is leading the study, said: “I have always been motivated by research that will make a difference.  I see this as a great opportunity to use eco-toxicology approaches in a different way to help solve an important global human health issue.”

In this call, the foundation received over 2,700 applications, out of which 84 were funded across 14 countries. Brunel will be recruiting a researcher to oversee this project.