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Published On: Tue, Jul 15th, 2014

‘Litter-box’ parasite used to treat cancer in mice: Dartmouth researchers

From the litter box to the laboratory, a microscopic organism native to cats shows promise in treating cancer. Dartmouth researchers’ mutated strain of T. gondii reprograms the natural power of the immune system to kill cells.

 

Public domain image/Josve05a

Public domain image/Josve05a

Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a single-celled parasite that is happiest in a cat’s intestines, but it can live in any warm blooded animal. Found worldwide, T. gondii affects about one-third of the world’s population, 60 million of which are Americans. Most people have no symptoms, but some experience a flu-like illness. Those with suppressed immune systems, however, can develop a serious infection if they are unable to fend off T. gondii.

An Anti-Cancer Agent in Nature?

A healthy immune system responds vigorously to T. gondii in a manner that parallels how the immune system attacks a tumor.

“We know biologically this parasite has figured out how to stimulate the exact immune responses you want to fight cancer,” said David J. Bzik, PhD, professor of Microbiology and ImmunologyGeisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

In response to T. gondii, the body produces natural killer cells and cytotoxic T cells. These cell types wage war against cancer cells. Cancer can shut down the body’s defensive mechanisms, but introducing T. gondii into a tumor environment can jump start the immune system.

“The biology of this organism is inherently different from other microbe-based immunotherapeutic strategies that typically just tickle immune cells from the outside,” said Barbara Fox, senior research associate of Microbiology and Immunology. “By gaining preferential access to the inside of powerful innate immune cell types, our mutated strain of T. gondii reprograms the natural power of the immune system to clear tumor cells and cancer.”

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