Onchocerciasis also known as river blindness is a neglected tropical disease and the world’s second-leading infectious cause of blindness in humans; it is caused by Onchocerca volvulus. Current treatment with ivermectin targets microfilariae and transmission and does not kill the adult parasites, which reside within subcutaneous nodules. To support the development of macrofilaricidal drugs that target the adult worm to further support the elimination of onchocerciasis, an in-depth understanding of O. volvulus biology especially the factors that support the longevity of these worms in the human host (>10 years) is required. However, research is hampered by a lack of access to adult worms. O. volvulus is an obligatory human parasite and no small animal models that can propagate this parasite were successfully developed. The current optimized 2-dimensional (2-D) in vitro culturing method starting with O. volvulus infective larvae does not yet support the development of mature adult worms. To overcome these limitations, we have developed and applied 3-dimensional (3-D) culture systems with O. volvulus larvae that simulate the human in vivo niche using in vitro engineered skin and adipose tissue. Our proof of concept studies have shown that an optimized indirect co-culture of in vitro skin tissue supported a significant increase in growth of the fourth-stage larvae to the pre-adult stage with a median length of 816-831 μm as compared to 767 μm of 2-D cultured developed larvae. Notably, when larvae were co-cultured directly with adipose tissue models, a significant improvement for larval motility and thus fitness was observed; 95% compared to 26% in the 2-D system. These promising co-culture concepts are a first step to further optimize the culturing conditions and improve the long-term development of adult worms in vitro. Ultimately, it could provide the filarial research community with a valuable source of O. volvulus worms at various developmental stages, which may accelerate innovative unsolved biomedical inquiries into the parasite’s biology.
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