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VIU graduate recognized for parasite study

Tim Goater felt a sense of immense pride when he opened a recent issue of Nature magazine.

A research article in the prestigious international science journal was written by one of Goater’s former Vancouver Island University biology students, Aaron Jex.

Jex grew up in Nanaimo, attended John Barsby Secondary School and VIU, and now is an award-winning scientist working at the University of Melbourne in Australia where he studies parasites.

The article profiles his work with professor Robin Gasser from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary Science. They led an international team of scientists which sequenced the genome of the common roundworm.

The article discusses how researchers hope the genetic roadmap of the worm, which infects pigs, can lead to the development of treatments for both animals and humans.

“Aaron is one of the leading experts in his field,” said Goater. “Getting published in Nature is a big deal in the world of science. We are very proud of him.”

Jex has been on the pathway to international acclaim since graduating from VIU with a bachelor of science, major in biology, in 2000.

Straight out of VIU, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Scholarship from the B.C. government to pursue a doctorate at the University of Queensland in Australia. He completed a it after receiving the prestigious Linkage International Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Australia Research Council.

He returns to North America next summer to receive his latest award – Siemen’s Young Healthcare Diagnostic Investigator of the Year Award from the American Society for Microbiology, to be awarded at the annual general meeting in San Francisco, in recognition of his research in developing better tools to detect and control waterborne diseases.

“This particular parasite, ascaris suum, is a close relative and excellent model for a really important parasite in humans called ascaris lumbricoides,” said Jex. “We use a similar sequencing technique as a model for both parasites.

“While ascaris suum causes billions of dollars in production losses in the pig industry, ascaris lumbricoides affects approximately 1.2 billion individuals globally and kills around 135,000 people – mainly children – each year in developing regions of Southeast Asia, China, South America and Africa.”

With very few drugs currently used to treat humans or animals, Jex said it is critical that new treatments are developed.

“There haven’t been huge advances in developing drugs for these things for quite some time. If the parasites become resistant to existing drugs, we don’t have a back up,” he said. “By sequencing the genome, we have a massive resource to better understand the parasite, probe for weaknesses and, hopefully, develop new drugs to control the disease that it causes.”

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