Worm spit that heals then kills

Cairns researchers have discovered a wound-healing and cancer-causing hormone in the spit of a liver worm that lives in over nine million people and infects adventurous Australian tourists.


Cairns researchers have discovered a wound-healing and cancer-causing hormone in the spit of a liver worm that lives in over nine million people and infects adventurous Australian tourists.

The wound-healing worm munching through the liver. Credit: Banchob Sripa
The wound-healing worm munching through the liver. Credit: Banchob Sripa

The Southeast Asian liver fluke munches through the liver, repairing the damage as it goes. But after many years of infection it can cause liver cancer and kills 20,000 people each year in Thailand alone.

“The growth hormone makes cells multiply quickly and uncontrollably, which is a key stage at the start of many aggressive and deadly cancers,” says Michael Smout from James Cook University.

“As it feeds on blood and tissue in the liver, the worm creates wounds, and then heals them, we suspect. This is good for the host in the short term, but repeated wounding and healing over decades combined with chronic inflammation can lead to this deadly form of cancer,” Michael explains.

The researchers hope their study will lead to vaccines to prevent liver cancer in impoverished regions of Asia, and to new treatments for non-healing wounds, which are an increasing problem for the ageing population here in Australia.

Michael won the inaugural FameLab Australia competition in 2014 and represented Australia in the national finals at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

For more information: Fresh Science, freshscience.org.au/fresh-science-alumni

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