Macrofilaricidal activity of tetracycline against the filarial nematode Onchocerca ochengi: elimination of Wolbachia precedes worm death and suggests a dependent relationship

N. G. Langworthy, A. Renz, U. Mackenstedt, K. Henkle–Dührsen, Mark B. de. C. Bronsvoort, V. N. Tanya, M. J. Donnelly, A. J. Trees

Abstract

Filarial nematodes are important and widespread parasites of animals and humans. We have been using the African bovine parasite Onchocerca ochengi as a chemotherapeutic model for O. volvulus, the causal organism of 'river blindness' in humans, for which there is no safe and effective drug lethal to adult worms. Here we report that the antibiotic, oxytetracycline is macrofilaricidal against O. ochengi. In a controlled trial in Cameroon, all adult worms (as well as microfilariae) were killed, and O. ochengi intradermal nodules resolved, by nine months' post–treatment in cattle treated intermittently for six months. Adult worms removed from concurrent controls remained fully viable and reproductively active. By serial electron–microscopic examination, the macrofilaricidal effects were related to the elimination of intracellular micro–organisms, initially abundant. Analysis of a fragment of the 16S rRNA gene from the O. ochengi micro–organisms confirmed them to be Wolbachia organisms of the order Rickettsiales, and showed that the sequence differed in only one nucleotide in 858 from the homologous sequence of the Wolbachia organisms of O. volvulus. These data are, to our knowledge, the first to show that antibiotic therapy can be lethal to adult filariae. They suggest that tetracycline therapy is likely to be macrofilaricidal against O. volvulus infections in humans and, since similar Wolbachia organisms occur in a number of other filarial nematodes, against those infections too. In that the elimination of Wolbachia preceded the resolution of the filarial infections, they suggest that in O. ochengi at least, the Wolbachia organisms play an essential role in the biology and metabolism of the filarial worm.