At 12:05 p.m. on a Thursday in February, a lab technician takes a six-well plate containing a solitary red snail and places it in a heated water bath under a strong light. The light and warmth signal hundreds of tiny larval parasites to stream out of the mollusk. Now, the clock starts ticking for Meta Roestenberg, an infectious disease physician here at Leiden University Medical Center. She has about 4 hours to launch a unique, controversial experiment in which she will let the parasites burrow into the arms of four healthy volunteers. If she waits too long, the larvae start to die.Roestenberg and her colleagues are infecting people with Schistosoma mansoni, one of five tiny waterborne worm species that cause schistosomiasis, a disease that sickens millions of people in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America and kills thousands each year. There is no schistosomiasis vaccine and only one old, inadequate drug, praziquantel, to treat it. Infecting humans could help speed up the development of new interventions. Roestenberg has designed the experiment to prevent the parasites from reproducing, and she says the risk to volunteers is extremely low.
But not low enough, some scientists argue, because there is no guarantee that subjects will get rid of their parasites when the study is over. “I would not volunteer for this study and if I had a son or daughter who wanted to volunteer, I would recommend against it,” says Daniel Colley, a schistosomiasis researcher at the University of Georgia in Athens.At 1:05 p.m., the technician takes the plate out of the bath. The larvae are ready to be harvested. Viewed under a microscope, they move around frantically, like minipropellers. Another technician removes one drop, dilutes it, adds iodine to kill the parasites, and counts them. That allows the researchers to calculate how many are left in the well: 574. They need only 80 today, 20 per volunteer.