Judd Walson, a University of Washington professor of Global Health, Medicine, and Pediatrics, recently received $621,029 in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a research grant focused on the development of a molecular diagnostic platform for the detection of soil transmitted helminths (STH), commonly known as parasitic worms. Investigators will use these methods to support a large, multi-country, randomized trial evaluating the feasibility of interrupting STH transmission through expanded mass drug administration. These trials will take place in Benin, India, and Malawi.

With this new grant, molecular detection methods will be automated and scaled to allow for the testing of over 200,000 samples being collected in DeWorm3. 

“Currently there are no widely available diagnostic tests that can be applied at this scale to detect very low levels of infection and determine if STH has been eliminated,” Walson said. “This grant will fund the development of such a platform.”

The current World Health Organization strategy for STH control is aimed at achieving at least 75% coverage of all preschool and school-aged children at risk of infection by 2020. While this strategy is effective for controlling these infections and reducing morbidity in young children, adults and others in the community continue to transmit these infections. 

This new project, titled “Method Validation of High-Throughput qPCR for DeWorm3,” focuses on a detection platform that seeks to determine if the global STH strategy can ultimately be shifted from control to elimination. The project will test 200,000 samples as part of the project’s surveillance initiatives. However, doing so will require a new innovation.

“Current efforts to control these infections rely on treating school and pre-school age children as well as pregnant women in endemic settings,” Walson said. “However, there is interest in moving beyond control of these infections to try to eliminate them completely from some geographic settings.”

With over 350,000 participants enrolled in the trials, the scope of this project is large and the results have the potential to transform the health of substantial populations. The strategy of this project is to develop and validate efficient and repeatable methods for the extraction and testing of stool samples for helminth infection. 

Soil transmitted helminths are among the most common infections of humans, affecting billions of people globally, Walson explained. These infections can lead to long term health impacts such as anemia and reduced cognitive development in those who are heavily infected.

“I am passionate about working to improve the lives of children around the globe,” Walson said. “Intestinal parasites are major causes of childhood and adult morbidity and I am committed to working towards the elimination of these infections.”

Walson is also the principal investigator on the DeWorm3 project, which launched in 2016 and is based at London’s Natural History Museum. DeWorm3 compares community-wide deworming efforts of individuals of all ages to standard deworming of school-aged children at schools. The project is also part of UW Department of Global Health’s Center for Integrated Health of Women, Adolescents, and Children (Global WACh).