Meet the Scientists: Maizels & McSorley

“We have known for a long time that parasitic worms can control the immune response in very sophisticated ways. It was an intriguing insight. Recent studies have led scientists to a molecule that, on its own, suppresses asthma in lab models.” says McSorley. 

The work of prof.dr. Rick Maizels and Dr. Henry McSorley focusses on the effect of parasitic helminth worms on the immune system. Worm infections are no longer common, which obviously is a positive development. However, parasitic helminth worms did play an important role in conditioning our immune system. 

In recent decades, the number of children suffering from asthma and allergies has strongly increased. The fact that this development coincides with urbanisation and a change in lifestyle has prompted scientists to investigate putative causal links. One surprising link was found, when studying infections with parasitic helminth worms.  

Research has shown that these parasites excrete specific molecules that simultaneously help the parasite to evade our immune system, but also create immune tolerance to the harmless allergens that nowadays cause asthma and allergies. One of these molecules has been discovered by dr. Henry McSorley (University of Edinburgh) and prof. Rick Maizels (University of Glasgow). They are teaming up with dr. Hermelijn Smits of Leiden University in the Asthma Prevention Consortium in their studies on 'protective' parasites. In a short video they talk about their research and how this molecule can be used to prevent asthma. 

Other environmental stimuli that we have lost are micro-organisms in e.g. raw milk and farm dust. The Asthma Prevention Consortium focusses on preventing asthma by bringing back these ‘lost friends’. The ‘lost friends’ theory is based on the fact that our immune system needs to be educated from the early phases of our lives through exposure to environmental factors like symbiotic microorganisms, infectious agents and parasites. These  environmental stimuli create immune tolerance and prevent the hypersensitive response to otherwise harmless molecules that is characteristic of diseases like asthma.