Liver worm spit can heal wounds…and cause cancer

“Australian researchers have discovered a wound-healing, cancer-causing hormone in the spit of a deadly parasitic worm.


Image: Wikimedia (top), Professor Banchob Sripa (bottom left), Wikimeda (bottom right)

The Southeast Asian liver fluke (Opisthorchis viverrini) lives in over 9 million people, and survives by munching through our livers and healing its damage as it goes, so it can go back and eat some more.

It’s an impressive skill, but after many years of infection, the worm can cause liver cancer, and kills 20,000 people each year in Thailand alone.

Now a researcher from James Cook University has worked out the secret behind the worm’s healing powers – a hormone that’s found in the worm’s spit. And it also appears to be linked to their cancer-causing behaviour too.

Dr Michael Smout is hoping that with further study, the growth hormone, known as granulin, will not only lead to new wound-healing compounds, but also a vaccine against the worm itself.

“The growth hormone makes cells multiply quickly and uncontrollably, which is a key stage at the start of many aggressive and deadly cancers of the brain, breast, colon and liver,” Smout explained to Science in Public.

By making granulin in the laboratory, Smout and his colleagues found that it also sends wound-healing signals to human cells. How it stimulates wound-healing isn’t understood yet, but the team believes that this healing action helps the worm keep its human host alive so they can both live longer.

Until they develop cancer or chronic liver damage, that is.

People become infected with the liver fluke through eating raw fish contaminated with the larval stages of Opisthorchis viverrini.”



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