CWU News

CWU Professors Awarded $360,000 to Fight Scourge of Hookworms

Worldwide, nearly a billion people are afflicted with hookworms, an intestinal parasite that causes stunted growth, anemia, malnutrition, low birth weight, and, though rarely, even death. Although it has been successfully treated in the past with drugs, hookworms and similar parasites are developing resistance to current treatments.

Responding to an urgent need to control this widespread parasitic disease, Central Washington University Professors Blaise Dondji, biological sciences, and Gil Belofsky, chemistry, have teamed up to develop alternative therapies. They are studying plant extracts that have potential to yield effective treatments for hookworm infection.

Recently they received $361,065 from the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health for their three-year study, “Anthelmintic Activity of Plant Natural Products Against the Hookworm Ancylostoma ceylanicum.” The budget for the first year is $122,440.

“Very little research has been done previously to look for alternatives to treatments for hookworm infection,” said Dondji, a specialist in infectious diseases. “To date, there is only one group of drugs for the disease, the benzimidazoles and they are becoming ineffective.”

Belofsky has performed significant research in the use of plant-based extracts to treat drug-resistant bacteria such as the dangerous Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause pneumonia, endocarditis, and toxic-shock syndrome.  He has published recently on the activity of other plant components against resistant fungal strains, toward insect crop-pests, and has done preliminary work toward treatments for Parkinson's via dopamine receptor-binding.

Their research aims at identifying and characterizing plant compounds that demonstrate activity against the hookworm Ancylostoma ceylanicum, one of the species causing the human disease. Compounds come from relatively common plant species—the Western prairie clover (Dalea ornata), and the Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), for example.

“We’ll examine extracts of the leaves, root, and bark and isolate the active compounds,” said Belofsky. “Then we’ll test their effectiveness on the hookworm, both ex vivo (in a petri dish) and in vivo (in a living animal).

Both Dondji and Belofsky are optimistic that the isolated plant compounds will yield positive results, and have, in fact, already isolated some of the active compounds—“which, down the road, could develop into intellectual property patenting and drug development,” said Dondji.

Early indications from these sources have been highly encouraging. However, Belofsky cautions, it must also correlate with low toxicity toward healthy cells for a treatment to be useful.

People can become infected with hookworm orally, by ingesting the hookworm larvae, or through the skin, by walking barefoot or having other skin contact with soil contaminated with hookworm larvae. The larvae that enter through the skin, end up in the small intestine where they mature. The worms then literally hook their fang-like cutting plates into the nutrient-rich lining of the intestine, where they voraciously feed on the host’s blood. Pregnant women, children and those who have compromised immune systems are most at risk for complications from hookworm infections.

Hookworms can be found throughout the world, but most commonly in sub-tropical areas where there is a constant moist, warm climate.

This research is supported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15AT008546. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health


Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518,
May 12, 2015