After countless years of shrieking hype about Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite found in cat feces, it’s finally getting some good press.
Researchers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center have genetically engineered a version of T. gondii, which has been shown in lab tests to destroy cells from ovarian cancer, aggressive melanoma, and other varieties.
How can a nasty parasite stop cancer in its tracks and force it to run for its life? According to Discovery News, the parasite is able to produce the kind of immune system reaction needed to fight the disease. Essentially, it reprograms the immune system to destroy tumors and cancer cells.
Please don’t let this news get you thinking you should infect yourself with T. gondii in hopes of curing or warding off cancer. Toxoplasmosis can be very dangerous to people whose immune systems are compromised by HIV, chemotherapy, or other immunosuppressive drugs. In these individuals it can cause high fever, seizures, headaches, poor coordination, and nausea. Pregnant women who get infected for the first time just before or during their pregnancy can have miscarriages, stillbirths, or babies with birth defects.
Not only that, but as I’ve said time and time again, T. gondii is transmitted much more frequently through undercooked meat and poor food handling practices — such as cutting raw vegetables on surfaces used to cut raw meat — than it is through accidentally handling cat poop or soil infected with Toxoplasma oocysts.
Most of us are aware that any time genetic engineering is involved, there’s always the possibility of unforeseen consequences. For example, genetically modified canola has been popping up far away from the fields where that GM canola was originally grown and hybridizing with plants that are known to be “agricultural pests” because hey, cross-pollination! I don’t know why nobody figured this would happen because we’ve all known about wind since we were old enough to sit up, and it’s not as though pollen falls to the ground as soon as it reaches a property line.
With the modified T. gondii parasite, known as cps, it’s hard to say, but at this time it looks like the organism is non-replicating and safe to use even in people with compromised immune systems. It’s an incredibly exciting breakthrough. I know plenty of people who have survived — and died from — cancer, and I would love to see this disease become history.
Nonetheless, I still think the researchers, the science and medical ethics community, and the general public should remain vigilant. Few people would complain about gaining immunity to cancer, and cps seems to be the closest we’ve come to a cure for cancer to date — but any time we tinker with nature, we run the risk of causing more problems than we solve.
What do you think? Is this exciting news, or does the genetic engineering involved give you the chills? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.