They are hardly visible to the naked eye.

But thousands of tiny worms wriggling around in a Huddersfield laboratory could provide vital breakthroughs in medical research.

The study of tiny worms could lead to new treatments for ailments such as kidney disease and to the development of drugs designed to slow down the effects of ageing on human health.

A University of Huddersfield scientist has received major funding that will enable her to develop her work in this field and to recruit and train a new researcher.

Dr Tarja Kinnunen is poised to deliver a free public lecture on Wednesday that will describe the benefits of studying the worm, named Caernorhabditis elegans or C. elegans.

Another advantage is that by using the worms for fundamental scientific discoveries, the need to carry out research using animals such as rodents and primates can be greatly reduced.

This has led to Dr Kinnunen being awarded £90,000 doctoral training studentship by the National Centre for the Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research.

The money will enable the appointment of a new doctoral student, supervised by Dr Kinnunen, who will use C. elegans in order to understand the important role played by a recently-discovered protein molecule named Klotho on physiology, including the effects of ageing.

University of Huddersfield researcher Dr Tarja Kinnunen
 

Most research into Klotho involves animals. But Dr Kinnunen and her researchers, via genetics and microscopy, use the worms, which are about a millimetre in length. It was almost 50 years ago that the Cambridge-based geneticist Sydney Brenner pioneered the use of C. elegansas an organism that was ideal for experiments, enabling scientists to link genetic analysis to animal development, following the process under the microscope. Since then, three Nobel prizes have been won by scientists who deployed C. elegans in their research.

The worm can be found universally in garden compost, but Dr Kinnunen – who uses them by the million – obtains special stocks of the tiny creatures from a Caenorhabditis Genetics Centre based in an American university.

She said the existence of the Klotho gene was first discovered about a decade ago in mice and subsequently in humans. Then she found that the gene was also present in C.elegans and she began to use the worms in Klotho research.

The potential benefits of her work are many, because it has become apparent that Klotho is involved in many aspects of human physiology, including soft-tissue calcification, which in case of arteries can cause atherosclerosis and stroke.

“Kidney disease causes defects in calcium and phosphate metabolism, so we could try to find help for people with impaired kidney function,” added Dr Kinnunen.

“These are often ageing-related disorders and Klotho seems to be involved in ageing, so we can learn how to keep human tissues healthy.”

Dr Kinnunen’s lecture takes place on Wednesday at 6.30pm at the University’s Canalside West Lecture Theatre and is free and open to all. For details go to www.hud.ac.uk/sas/lectures , call Janet Goodridge on 01484 473138 or email j.e.goodridge@hud.ac.uk.