Tapeworm treatment is about to get much effective, now that researchers have fully mapped the genomes of several parasite species to identify targets for tapeworm medicines.

The tapeworm genome study, published in the journal Nature on March 13, will allow researchers to develop much more effective and fast-acting tapeworm treatments that target specific genetic weaknesses.

Tapeworms can be debilitating parasites in humans, causing two of the World Health Organization's neglected tropical diseases: echinococcosis and cystercosis.

Tapeworms are flat segmented worms that live in the intestines of animals and humans. Adult tapeworms can live harmlessly in the gut, and are often totally asymptomatic in humans.

Tapeworm larvae, however, can cause serious, life-threatening problems when they spread throughout the body and form cysts in muscles and internal organs. The cysts can grow in the body like cancer tumors if untreated, and ultimately cause epilepsy, blindness, and death.

"Tapeworm infections are prevalent across the world and their devastating burden is comparable to that of multiple sclerosis or malignant melanoma," said Dr. Matthew Berriman, lead investigator from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, in a statement.

Tapeworms have preyed on humans since the beginning of recorded history. "Taenia solium infections were already known in the times of Confucius in China as well as in the Aristotle's Athens," said Professor Juan P Laclette, a study co-author from the National University of Mexico.

The research team, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, sequenced the genomes of four tapeworm species in hopes of better understanding their biology and identifying tapeworm treatment targets for medicines.

"These genome sequences are helping us to immediately identify new targets for much-needed drug treatment. In addition, exploring the parasites' full DNA sequences is driving our understanding of its complex biology, helping the research community to focus on the most effective drug candidates."

The team looked at similarities between human and tapeworm DNA, and found targets in tapeworm DNA that can exploit the effects of already existing drugs. Identifying existing drugs that may be effective for tapeworm treatment will get rid of the need to develop costly new tapeworm medicines.

Some promising targets for tapeworm treatment are existing cancer drugs that suppress cell division and prevent DNA replication. Another target could be the genes controlling proteins that help tapeworm larvae absorb fat from their hosts in order to grow- disrupting those proteins could stunt and kill the larvae.

"Given that so few successful treatment options are currently available, we hope that we will be able to identify and validate existing drug candidates, relieving the burden of this debilitating, overlooked disease," said Dr. Klaus Brehm of the University of Würzburg in Germany, who co-authored the study.

The high quality of genome sequencing in the study allowed the researchers to examine the evolutionary history of tapeworms, which revealed hundreds of new potential drug targets for tapeworm treatment.

"We need to take advantage of this genetic sequence data to find new and improved ways of coping with this problem that devastates much of the developed and developing world," said Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine, Editor-in-Chief of PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

"These promising findings offer new hope for huge numbers of people around the world - especially the global poor," said David Walker, President of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

"Findings like this remind us that when public and private financing is threatened or cut for research into diseases like tapeworm that is highly associated with poverty, real people and families are the victims. The public and private sectors must work together to reduce this needless suffering."