BY LINDA BAKER
Parasitic infections are a huge public health problem around the world. Now NemaMetrix, a startup out of the University of Oregon, has built a device to accelerate the development of drugs that kill off or paralyze such parasites, using the lowly roundworm, C. elegans, as a model. The technology takes advantage of the roundworm’s unique pharynx: a heart-like neuromuscular pump that is used in feeding and emits electrical signals that can be monitored, much like an EKG. An array of tiny channels, the device monitors signals in eight roundworms at once while simultaneously administering small quantities of drugs to each one. “If you add a drug and the pharynx stops pumping, it’s a great sign,” says Shawn Lockery, director of the UO Institute of Neuroscience and NemaMetrix co-founder. The company hopes to market the platform, which includes analytic software tools, to pharmaceutical companies as a screening device to identify new antiparasitic drugs. The technology can also be used in toxicology and drug-discovery programs for human metabolic and degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, says Lockery, noting that 60% of the C. elegans genes are the same as humans’. “Evolution has been very conservative,” he says.