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With one of the most complex life cycles around, schistosomes are a fascinating subject for scientists. However, they also cause a tremendous amount of death and illness among the poor as a neglected tropical disease. Therefore, James Collins brings a full set of motivations to his research on the schistosome life cycle.

Listen and learn

  • Why schistosome male and female reproduction is unique among flatworms with elements still not understood,
  • How their egg production causes the debilitating schistosomiasis symptoms, and
  • Why studying their ability to hide from our immune system and other immunologically interesting facts about infectious diseases might lead to improved organ transplant processes. 

James Collins is an associate professor with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He specializes in the shistosome parasite, researching significant elements of its basic biology. Originally from a geneticist and developmental biologist background, he became fascinated with flatworms and the schistosome stood out to him as both fascinating and also in desperate need of study: he realized how common and devastating their infections are among the world’s poorest communities. About 200 million people have a schistosomiasis diagnosis and a quarter of a million people die every year from its effects. This neglected tropical disease affects so many yet only a small amount of labs are focusing on it.

James Collins runs of these labs and hopefully his research will promote more effective schistosomiasis treatment. He explains their wild reproduction cycle that involves both snail and human hosts and a mysterious mating ritual that depends on a “hug” for the female to reach sexual maturity. Further, they have some significant attributes that make it hard to develop effective therapeutics.

While there is one drug that can successful kill them called praziquantel, it is only effective in two of their life phases. In addition, studies show that because the parasite is so plentiful, reinfection is highly likely. Therefore, while infected members of a village may be treated with this drug, when doctors return a year later, the parasite infection rate is just as high.

He explains that it is the high rate of egg production that causes the illnesses, with eggs finding their way to organs like the liver and causing massive inflammation and scaring that can lead to illness and death. Dr. Collins is studying both their ability to live for decades in human hosts as well as their ability to produce so many eggs in the hopes that such findings may lead to better schistosomiasis treatment. 

For more about his work, see his lab’s website: collinslab.org.

Available on Apple Podcasts: apple.co/2Os0myK

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