If this parasitic worm were a figure of speech, it'd be a double entendre. Opisthorchis viverrini, also known as the Southeast Asian liver fluke, secretes a growth factor that may help wounds to heal super fast. But being infected with the worm may also cause cancer, according to a news release.
It's definitely a win-lose proposition, but scientists are optimistic that the worm's wound-healing abilities could eventually be isolated, while its cancer-causing effects could be minimized.
The liver fluke infects millions of people in Southeast Asia and is estimated to kill tens of thousands of people every year. It is typically caught by eating raw fish, and it often lives in the human body undetected for decades before eventually causing cholangiocarcinoma, a bile duct cancer.
Because living in the human body is an important part of the parasite's life cycle, it has an incentive to keep its host healthy while it chews away at its cells. That's where the growth factor secretion comes into play. Recently isolated by researchers at James Cook University in Australia, the growth factor supercharges the healing of wounds and aids blood vessel growth. Researchers believe it has the ability to help patients with chronic wounds such as diabetic ulcers.
The trick, of course, is figuring out how to make use of the secretion without the nasty cancer that comes with it. So scientists developing the use of this secretion are also hard at work developing a vaccine against the worm-induced cholangiocarcinoma.
"Diabetes is a big problem as we live longer and get heavier," said Dr. Michael Smout of James Cook University. "There are increasing numbers of inflammatory diseases such as diabetes and associated non-healing wounds. A powerful wound healing agent designed by millennia of host-parasite co-evolution may accelerate the impaired healing processes that plague diabetic and elderly patients."
There's still much to learn about how the worm's growth factor promotes healing. Once scientists figure that out, it may be possible to design a safe, synthetic version. Those developments are still years away, but it goes to show that when it comes to science, positive advancements can come from the unlikeliest of places.