While it can riddle the human liver with cancer, the parasitic oriental liver fluke has a saving grace: it gives off a growth factor that speeds up wound healing and blood vessel growth.
This was the recent discovery of scientists at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) of James Cook University about the parasitic worm, which can be caught by consuming raw Southeast Asian fish. The parasite kills about 26,000 individuals every year.
Researchers conducted tests on mice and cell cultures and found that the secreted protein healed wounds and could address the need to treat chronic wounds such as diabetic ulcers.
Dr. Michael Smout, who led the study of the JCU team, believed there is “a lot of room for expansion in the wound healing market,” as keeping wounds clean is practically the main method of treatment at present.
However, there is a caveat: exposure to the healing protein for years results in liver cancer. Dr. Smout, who has been researching the river fluke for a decade and has grown it in a laboratory, said the creature is killing humans “with kindness.”
Dr. Smout hopes that the new research will prompt the development of a vaccine against the parasite, highlighting the protein as a good way to stop the worm because it is critical to its survival. Human trials, though, could take years before they take place.
When humans consume the eggs of the worm, they hatch in the intestine, crawl up into the liver, and survive there for decades before munching their way through their liver.
The double-edged sword presents itself once again: as the worm eats components of the liver, it zips up the wound behind it and therefore providing wound-healing benefits in the short term, Dr. Smout explained.
JCU professor Alex Loukas added that the liver fluke is nearly as complex as humans. “They’re highly sophisticated little beasts,” he said, citing that the animal has close to 15,000 genes in its genome.
Liver flukes have their own nervous system, digestive system, and mouth. They also possess the ability to digest blood. These traits and abilities are also present in higher eukaryotes and invertebrates. Prof. Loukas said that humans have evolved alongside worms over a span of millions of years, which means the latter has adapted to survive inside the human body.
While the river fluke is obtained from eating undercooked fish, sushi appears to be safe from its dangers, as it is people in the regions of Northeast Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia who are primarily affected.