Giardia parasites
Giardiasis is a parasitic disease causing chronic diarrhoea. It disproportionately affects young children - it can exacerbate malnutrition and lead to significant delays in physical and cognitive development. 

There are more than 280 million cases of giardiasis worldwide each year, but treatment is limited to a small number of drugs and drug resistance is emerging. 

Our researchers are using advanced genome technologies to explore parasite biology, with the goal of developing approaches to understand drug resistance and better control the disease.

Giardiasis research at WEHI

Our researchers are:

  • Using advanced sequencing technologies to understand how parasites develop and interact with their host.
  • Studying how parasites develop resistance to common drugs.
  • Evaluating the impact of giardiasis on childhood health and development.
  • Working with the Victorian water industry to develop tools for monitoring parasites in the water supply.
  • Investigating parasite epidemiology in developed and resource-poor communities.

What is giardiasis? 

Giardiasis is a diarrhoeal disease caused by the parasite Giardia duodenalis

Giardia is a tiny, single-celled organism with multiple whip-like tails, called flagella. The parasite lives in the small intestine of mammals - including humans - where it interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. As the parasite travels down the digestive tract, it develops into cysts that are shed in faeces. The cysts can survive in the environment for weeks or months. 

The Giardia parasite is transmitted when people swallow cysts via hand-to-mouth contact. For example, outbreaks are common in childcare centres due to poor hand hygiene after changing nappies. 

Transmission can also occur through contaminated water supplies: the parasite is spread when people drink the water, use it to wash their food or ingest it during recreational activities such as swimming. This is a common route of infection for travellers and people hiking or camping in the wilderness. 

There are up to 600,000 cases of giardiasis in Australia each year, and more than 280 million cases worldwide. The disease has a disproportionately high impact on children in impoverished communities, including in remote Indigenous communities in Australia.

Symptoms of giardiasis

Symptoms of giardiasis usually develop one to three weeks following infection and can include:

  • Diarrhoea and greasy stools that float
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Gas
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dehydration
  • Post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic giardiasis can lead to significant long-term effects including malnutrition, weight loss, delayed physical and mental growth and predisposition to other diseases. 

Some people with giardiasis show no symptoms but can still transmit the disease.

Risk factors for giardiasis

People at risk of giardiasis include:

  • Children and staff at childcare centres
  • Family members of people with giardiasis
  • Travellers to areas where giardiasis is common
  • Hikers or campers who drink untreated water from lakes and rivers
  • People who swim in contaminated water, such as lakes, rivers and swimming pools
  • Practising good hygiene and avoiding contaminated food and water when travelling reduces the risk of giardiasis

How is giardiasis treated?

Many cases of giardiasis are self-limiting and resolve on their own. Other cases are more persistent and require treatment to clear the infection. 

The drugs currently available to treat giardiasis have significant side effects and are not always effective; drug resistance is emerging, leading to treatment failure. Chronic giardiasis remains a major health and economic burden, particularly in resource-poor communities. These limitations highlight the need for new drugs to treat giardiasis. 

Applying genome technologies

Our researchers are using advanced genome technologies to study the Giardia parasite. The parasite has a compact genome and can be readily grown in the lab, making it possible to investigate genes that regulate fundamental aspects of parasite biology, including: 

  • Invasion of and development within the host
  • Development, transmission and detection of drug resistance
  • Identification of novel targets for new drug development

These genomic tools can also be used to explore how the parasites develop resistance to common drugs.

Ultimately, understanding the genes that control key aspects of parasite biology will underpin approaches to detect, treat and control giardiasis.

3D protein structure
A 3D structure of multiple proteins important to the lifecycle of Giardia. Researchers are using
this structure to understand how the parasite survives in its human host.
Credit: Brendan Ansell, Balu Balan, Aaron Jex

Super Content: 
Dr Louise Baker in a laboratory

A research fellowship has been established to improve the identification and control of water-borne illness.

Researchers with freezer

The Pierce Armstrong Foundation has funded a 'cool' new piece of equipment for studies aiming to combat drug resistance in treating Giardia.

Female researcher in a laboratory

Dr Samantha Emery has won a two-year grant from The Jack Brockhoff Foundation to support her studies in the parasite, Giardia duodenalis.