Worm diseases, while rare in the United States, afflict hundreds of millions of people in many other parts of the world with painful, disfiguring, and debilitating diseases. Established through the generous donation of John J. Moores, WIRM is the latest extension of Mr. Moores' long-time interest in worm-carried (filarial) conditions. He founded the River Blindness Foundation in 1989 to distribute a treatment for that disease in developing countries, principally in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1997, the foundation was absorbed into The Carter Center of Atlanta, where he has served on the Board of Trustees since its founding by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in 1994.
Initially, scientists at WIRM are investigating the basic science needed for the development of diagnostic tools for public health practitioners in the field to detect effectively and efficiently the presence of parasitic worms in a person's body. Ultimately, these discoveries may translate into unique approaches for the treatment of filiarial infections throughout the world. Since the inception of WIRM, several talented researchers recognized as leaders in the field of filarial parasites have been recruited to join the institute, including 2002 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Dr. Sydney Brenner. Dr. Brenner is widely known for his pioneering studies of the nematode C. elegans as a laboratory model organism.
One of the first topics WIRM investigators will tackle is the nematode, or worm, that causes onchocerciasis, one of the world's leading causes of blindness. Onchocerciasis is often referred to as "river blindness" because it occurs in areas close to fast flowing water where the black flies transmitting the parasite, a tiny worm called Onchocerca volvulus, like to lay their eggs. In severe cases, the worms cause lesions and massive inflammation in the eyes of the infected person, leading to vision problems and blindness. The disease is a major problem in many African nations, where 99 percent of all cases occur. It is also endemic in parts of Latin America and certain areas of the Middle East. According to the World Health Organization, some 18 million people in 35 countries are infected with the worm that causes river blindness, and about half a million people are blinded by their infection. River blindness can be treated effectively with the drug ivermectin that has provided free of charge for nearly two decades. However, there is a need to find ways to detect the worms in the field to help public health efforts curtail new infections.
In addition to O. volvulus, WIRM researchers are targeting a number of other organisms including:
- Brugia malayi, Mansonella streptocerca, and Wuchereria bancrofti – three thread-like worms that infect some 120 million people worldwide. These parasites lodge in lymphatic tissue and cause a disease known as lymphatic filariasis, a debilitating and disfiguring illness that causes elephantiasis, a disease characterized by severe swelling in the genitals and limbs.
- Dracunculis medinensis – a worm spread through unclean water that can grow to be several feet long in the body and causes the painful disease dracunculiasis, or Guinea worm disease.
- Schistosoma mansoni – a worm carried by freshwater snails, which causes the disease schistosomiasis, afflicting some 200 million people worldwide.
- Dirofilaria immitis – a heartworm spread by mosquitoes that infects dogs and is common in the United States.