How a Cat Poop Parasite Could Help Scientists Beat Cancer

This week, a team of researchers at Dartmouth announced an exciting, if terribly disgusting, medical discovery. A single-celled parasite usually found in cats' intestines—and later in their poop—shows unique promise as a cancer treatment. The researchers even think the parasite could enable them to create personalized cancer vaccines.

The parasite, known as Toxoplasma gondii, is actually pretty dangerous to humans. However, the immune system attacks T. gondii cells the same way it should go after a tumor. Dartmouth professor David J. Bzik, who led the research, said that the parasite can "stimulate the exact immune responses you want to fight cancer." The trick is getting the body to produce the natural cytotoxic T cells before a tumor grows, so that they can attack said tumor when it's time.

In order to avoid the dangerous effects of the parasite, the research team created "cps," an immunotherapeutic vaccine. The vaccine is supposed to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer vigilantly, and early results show that it works. According to a press release about a newly published study, they "tested the cps vaccine in extremely aggressive lethal mouse models of melanoma or ovarian cancer and found unprecedented high rates of cancer survival."

Now, the scientists just have to figure out if it works in humans. Or, more importantly, they have to figure out how. As with any experimental treatment (much less one that involves parasites from poop!), it will take time to go from a promising result to a tested treatment. Still, it's fascinating to think that the key to a potentially promising new vaccine exists right under our noses. [Discovery]

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