Brain and Body

Cancerous Tapeworm Kills Man in Rare Medical Case

November 6, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Tapeworm tissue cross section
Photo credit: Doc. RNDr Josef Reischig, CSc./Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The man died just 72 hours after getting to the hospital, stunning doctors in this odd medical case.

An HIV-positive Columbian man died shortly after being infected by a cancerous tapeworm, in what’s said to be the first medical case of its kind. Doctors initially thought he had cancer, but strangely, the cancer masses were found to be tapeworm cells, not human tumor cells. Since HIV weakens the immune system, his condition likely allowed the parasite’s cancer to spread freely.

The rare case, described in the New England Journal of Medicine, informs that the 41-year-old man had been suffering from a fever, fatigue, a cough, and weight loss. On top of that, he’d been diagnosed with HIV seven years earlier but wasn’t taking his HIV medication. As a result, his white blood cell count was extremely low and his blood and fecal samples showed a hefty amount of virus particles.

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A CT (Computed Tomography) scan showed that the man’s lungs, liver, and adrenal glands were infected with cancerous masses, but the bizarre cells left doctors puzzled. They ended up contacting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who then linked the cancer to the tapeworm, Hymenolepis nana. Unfortunately, the man died just 72 hours after he was admitted to the hospital.

This case has perplexed doctors because H. Nana is the most common tapeworm in humans, infecting up to 75 million people worldwide. But for some reason, this Colombian man was the first to die from the parasite’s own cancer. Or could there be other misdiagnosed or undetected cases out there?

"This is the first time we've seen parasite-derived cancer cells spreading within an individual,"  Atis Muehlenbachs, a special unit agency pathologist who investigates unexplained mystery illnesses and deaths, told the Washington Post. "This is a very unusual, very unique illness."

According to ScienceAlert, the researchers at the CDC believe the man initially ingested some microscopic tapeworm eggs — likely from food that was contaminated by insects, mouse droppings, or even human feces. (Yuck). Since the man’s immune system was already weakened by the HIV, it’s likely that the eggs rapidly multiplied in his gastrointestinal tract before spreading to other parts of his body.

Generally, cancer isn’t considered to be a transmittable disease, so researchers say we could just be scratching the surface of important information about the disease. Muehlenbachs informed the Washington Post of a somewhat ominous determination that will need to be made in the future — whether the transmittable cancer is limited to tapeworms, or if there’s some “underlying biological phenomena” that could lead to transmissible cancer cells in other creatures as well.

Since it was the first case of its kind, doctors were unable to act quick enough to spare the man’s live. Hopefully this rare case will lead to better intervention methods if such a case happens to arise again in the future. But until more is known, it’s unclear what type of treatment would help.

Researchers say that the existing drugs which treat tapeworm infections might not be effective in treating cancer cells from tapeworms. However, human cancer treatment could potentially work against parasite cancer cells.

In a perfect world, no more tapeworm cancer cases would occur, but with the amount of people who are infected by H. Nana at any given moment, researchers are perplexed as to why this man’s case stands alone.

Check out the New England Journal of Medicine’s video on the rare occurrence below:




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