UCSB donated patent rights for the first time on Feb. 24 for a novel type of medical treatment that could benefit millions worldwide.

Armand Kuris, professor of Zoology and Mark Walter, research biologist at the Marine Science Institute, discovered that an existing heart medicine could be used to treat a parasitic infection called schistosomiasis. UCSB donated the patent rights to this new treatment to OneWorld Health, a nonprofit organization.

“The patent is really about the method,” Kuris said. “It’s a novel approach.”

The new method involves taking an existing type of drug normally used to treat high blood pressure, and using it instead to treat the parasitic worm infection, Joanne Hasegawa of OneWorld Health said. This drug is known as a calcium channel blocker, which inhibits cells’ abilities to take in calcium ions.

In patients with heart conditions, the drug causes the heart muscle to relax and avoid high blood pressure. Kuris and Walter found that the blocker also prevents the parasitic worm from laying eggs in the body by denying the parasite vital calcium. When this is prevented, the lifecycle of the worm is broken, and the worm will not be able to damage the body by laying eggs.

Schistosoma mansoni and Schistosoma haematobium are tiny parasitic worms that can spend part of their life cycle within the human body, causing schistosomiasis. Kuris, also a professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology, said that the parasite is not found in the U.S., but is common in underdeveloped areas in the Middle East, China and the Philippines, among others. The worm currently affects about 200 million people and kills almost 250,000 a year, which is comparable to malaria, Hasegawa said.

The worm enters the body through the skin from pond water that contains the parasite, Kuris said. Once the worm is inside the body, it usually lays eggs in the bladder or liver.

The damage from the parasite is done by the eggs which infest the target organs, Kuris said. This is one reason why conventional treatment techniques are not very effective.

“It’s just a little egg, but you could have millions of eggs in an infection,” Kuris said.

The bladder is especially targeted by the parasite as a place to lay eggs. After years of constant infection, the bladder loses elasticity, and does not function normally. Kuris said that death could result from the damage done to internal organs by the eggs.

“In conventional techniques, the medicine only kills the worms,” Kuris said.

Killing the parasite may seem like the best approach; however, many people simply get infected again when they return to the same pond that caused the original illness, Kuris said. The body develops an immunity to the worm, but the eggs still do damage to the organs.

“The immunity only occurs in the presence of the worms.” Kuris said. “If you remove the worms, you remove the immunity.”

This opens the door to subsequent infections. When using the new calcium channel blockers, the worms actually stay in the body in small concentrations but are unable to lay new eggs due to the blockers, Kuris said. This approach prevents people from getting re-infected as they would with the conventional techniques.

“The novel discovery is that this approach attacks the pathology, not the worms,” Kuris said.

OneWorld Health will be using the new patent to develop and evaluate calcium blocker drugs that will be made to combat the parasite, Hasegawa said.

“We do the testing ourselves,” Hasegawa said. “We focus on the development of the drugs.”

Hasegawa said that they are currently working on other drug trials on humans, but the calcium channel blockers need more work before they can be used on humans for treating parasitic infections.

“The UCSB discovery is in a much earlier stage,” Hasegawa said. “The next step is to get funding for pre-clinical trials.”