Cat parasite helps combat cancer

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Approximately one-third of the global population is infected with Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a single-celled parasite typically found in cat intestines (though other animals can carry the parasite). Most humans with T. gondii show few, if any, symptoms, though in rarer cases in can be dangerous for those already immunocompromised. Now research has shown that a mutated form of T. gondii may help galvanize the human immune system to fight cancer.

David Bzik, professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University, conducted research into the effect of T. gondii on the human body. He found that in response to the parasite the humans produce natural killer cells and cytotoxic T cells. These cells not only wage war against the parasite (typically muting its effects as to be unnoticeable) but also cancer cells. The process "jumpstarts" the immune system, which has typically been suppressed by the cancer as a survival tactic.

Injecting cancer patients with T. gondii would not be safe, so researchers went about developing a safer version. Bzik and his colleague Barbara Fox have labeled their modified version "cps" and they removed a gene that was critical to the parasite’s ability to self-replicate, thereby creating a safe version that can trigger the desired immune response without posing its own threat. Mice with lethal forms of ovarian cancer and melanoma were injected with cps and subsequently showed high survival rates. The investigators feel further research on the molecular level is needed, but that the potential for cancer vaccine development and even targeted therapy is great.

Cat parasite helps combat cancer
Cat parasite helps combat cancer
Those with suppressed immune systems, however, can develop a serious infection if they are unable to fend off T. "We know biologically this parasite has figured out how to stimulate the exact immune responses you want to fight cancer," says David Bzik, professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. gondii, Bzik and Fox created "cps," an immunotherapeutic vaccine.
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