Background: Approximately 200 million people worldwide harbour parasitic flatworm infections that cause schistosomiasis. A single drug-praziquantel (PZQ)-has served as the mainstay pharmacotherapy for schistosome infections since the 1980s. However, the relevant in vivo target(s) of praziquantel remain undefined.
Methods and findings: Here, we provide fresh perspective on the molecular basis of praziquantel efficacy in vivo consequent to the discovery of a remarkable action of PZQ on regeneration in a species of free-living flatworm (Dugesia japonica). Specifically, PZQ caused a robust (100% penetrance) and complete duplication of the entire anterior-posterior axis during flatworm regeneration to yield two-headed organisms with duplicated, integrated central nervous and organ systems. Exploiting this phenotype as a readout for proteins impacting praziquantel efficacy, we demonstrate that PZQ-evoked bipolarity was selectively ablated by in vivo RNAi of voltage-operated calcium channel (VOCC) beta subunits, but not by knockdown of a VOCC alpha subunit. At higher doses of PZQ, knockdown of VOCC beta subunits also conferred resistance to PZQ in lethality assays.
Conclusions: This study identifies a new biological activity of the antischistosomal drug praziquantel on regenerative polarity in a species of free-living flatworm. Ablation of the bipolar regenerative phenotype evoked by PZQ via in vivo RNAi of VOCC beta subunits provides the first genetic evidence implicating a molecular target crucial for in vivo PZQ activity and supports the 'VOCC hypothesis' of PZQ efficacy. Further, in terms of regenerative biology and Ca(2+) signaling, these data highlight a novel role for voltage-operated Ca(2+) entry in regulating in vivo stem cell differentiation and regenerative patterning.