Spit produced by a cancer-causing worm which damages the human liver can be used to treat non-healing wounds, a scientist has claimed.
"It's not a high-tech performance, but it's a good story," said Queensland-based parasitologist Michael Smout from James Cook university.
He explained his latest study at a science competition by using a large teddy bear, an oversized worm and a velvet liver on how liver parasites cause cancer, and how they might also assist in the development of treatments for non-healing wounds.
"Throughout Southeast Asia there's a very high rate of a particular form of liver cancer. It's caused by chronic infection with a parasitic worm, or liver fluke, which is found in one of the staple foods – uncooked fish," he said.
One-sixth of infected people develop liver cancer, and in Thailand alone 20,000 people die of this cancer each year.
"My research focuses on 'worm spit', molecules secreted by the parasites that cause cells to multiply faster than they normally would," Smout said adding, "That's a key factor in the initiation of many cancers, and I've been able to isolate a molecule, granulin, that causes excessive cell growth."
By making worm granulin in the laboratory, Smout has found that it is not just a potent human cell growth stimulator – it also promotes wound healing.
"We don't know yet how this works, but we suspect that as the worm feeds on the liver it also heals the wounds it creates. In the short term this would be beneficial to the human host, but the repeated wounding and healing over decades could lead to this form of cancer, which has a dismal prognosis."
Smout is a member of the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance, based at James Cook university in Cairns.
"Our work on this project is two-fold. Firstly we aim to develop treatments or a vaccine to prevent liver fluke infection, which in turn will dramatically reduce the incidence of liver cancer in Thailand and surrounding countries," he said.
"Secondly we believe that an in-depth understanding of liver fluke biology, particularly focusing on how it heals the wounds it creates, could lead to new treatments for non-healing wounds which are an increasing problem with smokers, diabetics and an ageing population," Smout said.