A UC Riverside scientist was awarded $1.8 million to fund his research into parasitic worms, which can mysteriously live in humans without being detected by a person’s immune system, it was announced Monday.

Adler Dillman, an assistant professor of parasitology, was granted the Outstanding Investigator Award by the National Institutes of Health to shed light on the medical mystery.

“You can have a person riddled with infection who never realized there’s a 2-centimeter-long worm in their eye and thousands of parasites in their blood,” Dillman said. “The immune system never signaled something was wrong. How is that possible? We know very little about how that works.”

Nearly a quarter of the world’s population is thought to be infected with microscopic worms — including hookworms, pinworms and tapeworms — which can cause a wide range of ailments including cognitive impairment and blindness, according to a UCR statement.

Hookworms thrive in the American South, causing developmental delays and anemia, while pinworms commonly infect children and childcare workers with an itchy rash around the anus area.

Dillman’s research focuses on the proteins that nematode spit, also called venom, which release into hosts during an infection. The science community understands that the venom alters the immune system of a host and somehow helps the worms avoid detection, although not much else is understood by scientists.

There are hundreds of proteins released in nematode venom during an infection, and only about 10 have been characterized and understood, according to the university.

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