Tapeworms' cancer causes tumours in HIV patient

The dwarf tapeworm may carry cancer cells that may take root in people with weakened immune systems. The malignant cells are pictured here.
The dwarf tapeworm may carry cancer cells that may take root in people with weakened immune systems. The malignant cells are pictured here. PHOTO: CENTRES FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION

WASHINGTON • Stunned scientists at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found the first known case of a man infected with tumours that arose from a common parasitic tapeworm, raising concern about more such infections that may go undetected.

"We were amazed when we found this new type of disease - tapeworms growing inside a person essentially getting cancer that spreads to the person, causing tumours," said Dr Atis Muehlenbachs, a CDC staff pathologist on Wednesday.

"We think this type of event is rare. However, this tapeworm is found worldwide and millions of people globally suffer from conditions like HIV that weaken their immune system. So there may be more cases that are unrecognised," said Dr Muehlenbachs, lead author of the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The case involved a 41-year-old man in Colombia. He was HIV-positive and not been taking medication when in 2013, he went to his doctors with a cough, fever and complaints of weakness and weight loss.

His doctors took biopsies from his lymph nodes and lung tumours, and asked the CDC to help diagnose some bizarre-looking lesions which looked like human cancer, but initial lab tests showed were not human.

In mid-2013, after many tests, the CDC found DNA from Hymenolepis nana, the dwarf tapeworm, in the man's tumour. He died soon after.

The dwarf tapeworm is the most common tapeworm in humans, and infects up to 75 million people at any given time. People can get it by eating food that has mouse faeces on it, or ingesting faeces from an infected person. Many people show no symptoms. "However, in people whose immune systems are weak, including people who have HIV or are taking steroids, the tapeworm thrives," the CDC said.

Hymenolepis nana is the only one of some 3,000 known tapeworms that can complete its entire life cycle from egg to adult tapeworm in an individual's small intestine.

In the case of the Colombian man, his weakened immune state may have enabled the parasite's cancer to spread through his body.

Ways to avoid infection include washing hands with soap and warm water and by washing, peeling, or cooking raw vegetables and fruit before eating.

The CDC said it is unclear whether human cancer treatments would help in such cases, but urged physicians in developing nations to "be aware of the possibility of similar illnesses, especially if they have patients with weakened immune systems who have tumours".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2015, with the headline 'Tapeworms' cancer causes tumours in HIV patient'. Print Edition | Subscribe