Double success for School in the fight against Elephantiasis brings hope to millions of sufferers worldwide

Press release 20 Jun 2005

Antibiotics hold key to cure for disfiguring disease

Scientists at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine have proved that a single course of one antibiotic may hold the key to curing the parasitic worm disease Elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis) that has been one of the most common causes of global disability since Biblical times. The discovery offers the first new treatment for this distressing disease for decades.

The disease causes cruel and severe disfigurement with debilitating swelling of the limbs. It leads to many sufferers being social outcasts, deprives them of the ability to work and impairs sexual function Scientifically known as Bancroftian filariasis, the disease is transmitted by the mosquito and affects the most deprived and marginalised populations in the poorest countries.

The findings of Dr Mark Taylor and his team of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are based on their research in Tanzania and will bring new hope to millions off sufferers of Elephantiasis worldwide. They were published in the leading medical journal, the Lancet on Friday June 17th, 2005 and show that by using simple antibiotics it is possible to eliminate the adult worms which cause the gross pathology of the lymphatic system.

Dr Taylor, Senior Wellcome Research Fellow said: "This is a very significant breakthrough indeed. We haven't had a new treatment for filariasis for decades so this is of major importance. A key factor is that the treatment is available now. We know how it works and it is already a tried and tested treatment widely used for other bacterial diseases, avoiding all the long and expensive trials of a new drug. The drugs are readily available to people with filariasis and are cheap as well which is very important in countries where the disease is endemic. What we need to do now is to optimise the treatment to make it suitable for mass community programmes."

As Dr Taylor explained, the antifilarial drugs currently used, diethylcarbamazine and ivermectin, are predominantly active against the larval offspring of the parasite. These treatments form the basis of global programmes used to eliminate lymphatic filariasis in which the School also plays a leading role. However, drugs with adult worm activity could greatly improve the prospects of programme closure.

Dr Taylor and colleagues tested whether treatment against Wolbachia - a bacterium the adult worms are dependent on - could be effective for filariasis. They recruited 72 men infected with W bancrofti from Kimanga village, Pangani , Tanzania , aged 15­-68 years. Half were assigned to placebo and half to an 8-week course of doxycycline. They found that doxycycline treatment resulted in almost complete elimination of adult worms 14 months after treatment and a sustained loss of microfilaraemia (the larval offspring) from at least 8 to 14 months after treatment.

Dr Taylor explains: "In our study, an 8-week course of doxycycline against W bancrofti induced both sustained reductions in the larval offspring and, most notably, the adult worm activity. This is especially important since the adult worms cause the disease pathology in lymphatic filariasis and no safe, effective treatment against adult worms exists. However, an 8-week course of doxycycline treatment is not applicable to mass treatment strategies because of both the logistical difficulties of delivering long-term treatments and doxycycline being contraindicated in children younger than 8 years and pregnant women."

Said Dr Taylor: "We now need to address other issues such as reducing the length of time over which the drugs have to be taken. We have already found that it works at eight weeks, and then six weeks so we will be looking to see if we can reduce that further. "We will also be looking at ways of using different antibiotics or combinations that are suitable for use with children and pregnant women."


School's filariasis support unit is awarded £3 million for further work on global programme

The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine has been awarded a second grant of £3m for a further 5 years from the Department for International Development to continue its unique partnership with GlaxoSmithKline in the global programme to rid the world of parasitic diseases caused by filarial worms.

The world famous School has for many years been involved in research on the control of river blindness and elephantiasis. Since 2000 the UK Department for International Development and GlaxoSmithKline have supported a project to eliminate elephantiasis - a mosquito transmitted disease through a grant to the School under Professor David Molyneux's direction.

The elephantiasis control programme (scientifically called filariasis as the parasites are called filarial worms) addresses one of the leading global causes of disability and poverty which is endemic in over 80 countries. In 2000, when the global programme started 3 million were treated and in 2004 the number treated has increased to over 130 million with an annual treatment of two drugs. This programme is the most rapidly up-scaling global disease control activity with many partners the most important of which are the Ministries of Health of the endemic countries.

The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine has worked with some 20 countries in a treatment programme which has been described as one of the most effective in the annals of public health history. The disease effects the most deprived and marginalised populations in the poorest countries ­ it deprives them of the ability to work, produces highly deforming lesions, impairs sexual function and reduces marital prospects and stigmatises those infected.

The support provided to the School thus addresses directly the current initiatives of the Prime Minister, the Commission for Africa and the Make Poverty History campaign.

The renewed support to the School emphasises that there are success stories and that for as little as US$0.10 per person per year real benefits to health can be achieved by the distribution of drugs which lead to the elimination of disease. To quote Professor Molyneux "The School remains at the forefront of a global campaign which will eliminate a disease with has been with us since Biblical times- we are well on our way to a huge public health achievement ".


Dr Mark J Taylor
Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
Pembroke Place
L3 5QA 

Tel: +44 (0) 151 705 3112