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In profile: Nor Hawani Salikin, PhD student

Diseases resulting from parasitic helminth (nematode – or ‘small worm’) infections have become a serious issue globally. Almost 1.5 billion people around the world are suffering from parasitic helminth infections, which are usually acquired by consuming food or water that has been contaminated with the eggs of a parasite. 

After the ingested eggs hatch and grow in the human body, they absorb nutrients from the person, resulting in malnutrition, growth retardation (especially in children) and severe gastrointestinal disorders such as abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, duodenitis, anorexia and fever. In some severe cases, nematodes can lodge, migrate or encyst within human tissue, resulting in inflammation, anaemia and organ malfunction which, left untreated, can be fatal.

In addition, infectious parasites can also destruct crops and agricultural yield, posing a significant threat to global food security and supply.Nor Hawani conducting an experiment

Worryingly, parasitic nematodes are becoming more resistant against current drugs due to high instances of prolonged and underdosed treatments. Finding a new antinematode drug has become a matter of global urgency, and UNSW PhD student Nor Hawani (Wani) Salikin is helping to advance the search for a new treatment, investigating how a specific marine epiphytic bacterium may hold the answer.

Through her research, Wani is undertaking an in-depth characterisation of the Pseudoalteromonas tunicata (P. tunicata, which is a type of bacteria that lives on the surface of green alga Ulva australis and tunicate Ciona intestinalis .P. tunicate has displayed anti-nematode and antiprotozoal behaviours, and Wani is testing its effectiveness against the model nematode Caenorhabditis elegans – a type of roundworm that lives in soil.

Wani says that in order for marine epiphytic bacteria to survive, they form a marine biofilm. However, these biofilms are prone to being grazed upon or eaten by predators such as nematodes and protozoa.

“As a defence strategy against the bacteriovorous grazers, the marine epiphytic bacteria are able to produce novel antinematode and antiprotozoal metabolites,” says Wani.

“The antinematode and antiprotozoal activity by P. tunicata has been previously validated, suggesting its potential as the new source of antinematode drug discovery from the ocean.”

Wani’s research is microscopically investigating the nematode-killing mechanism employed by P. tunicata and also analysing the immune response of the tested worms against the killing activity. Her research will help to determine whether the immunity of the worms against the P. tunicata toxicity will be enhanced by the presence of the worm’s gut microbiome

“I am using qPCR —or the Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction method—to determine the upregulation and the downregulation of several genes in the test nematode when assayed against the P. tunicata antinematode strains,” says Wani.

“By conducting this experiment, I can understand the nematode response and its defense mechanisms against the killing activity by the bacteria.”

Wani has a Bachelor of Science with Honours (Microbiology) and Master of Science (Industrial Microbiology) from University of Science Malaysia (USM), and her PhD study is sponsored by the USM and the Malaysia Ministry of Education.

Here at UNSW, I have found harmony between the research in the lab and its application in the real world

Nor Hawani Salakin, PhD Student

Wani says that UNSW is an excellent place to complete her research, allowing her to polish her skills under the supervision and assistance from the experts.

“I always receive useful advice and guidance from my Supervisor, Associate Professor Suhelen Egan, and from the enthusiastic CMB (Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation) Lab members,” says Wani.

“Here at UNSW, I have found harmony between the research in the lab and its application in the real world. I am feeling grateful to have the opportunity to study in this world-ranking university and hope that the precious knowledge, skills and experiences that I have gained here will enable me to make a novel contribution in science.”

After she completes her PhD, Wani intends to return to Malaysia and work at USM.

“I am eager to do multidisciplinary research and apply the skills that I have attained here,” she says.

“I am really excited to share with people how fascinating molecular biology and the microbial ecology really is.”

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