A targeted approach to treating a parasitic disease known as toxoplasmosis, which can cause severe eye damage in patients, has shown early promise in studies.
Test-tube and animal studies were carried out by experts from the University of Chicago Medicine, who found that the new approach prevented the parasites from making selected proteins and, in newly infected mice, reduced the number of viable parasites by more than 90 per cent.
The report is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and involves combining short strands of "antisense" nucleic acid-like material with a small peptide that can transport those strands through cell membranes and into parasites, where they disrupt genetic signals.
A similar approach from a team at Yale University, published in April, showed comparable promise as a treatment for the parasites that cause malaria.
Dr Rima McLeod, a toxoplasmosis expert and professor at the university, commented: "We were able to cross multiple membranes, to insert the antisense strands into parasites living within cells and prevent them from making several different proteins. We now think we can shut down any of this parasite's genes."
She theorised that the approach may even have a role in non-parasitic diseases, as it is currently being tested in drug-eluting stents as a treatment for bacterial or viral infections, including Ebola, as well as in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, where it can block production of the defective segment of a dysfunctional gene.
The expert noted that Toxoplasma gondii is probably the most common parasitic infection in the world, infecting as many as one-third of all humans, comparable to two billion people globally.
"T. gondii causes disease in those who have immature immune systems, particularly those infected in utero. It also can be devastating for those who are immune-compromised and when it causes eye disease," she explained.