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Vice Blog

Tapeworm Cancer Could Now Be A Thing

A 41-year-old man died from cancerous tumours made of worm tissue on his lungs and liver.

by Joe Goodman
05 November 2015, 12:40pm

Photo via Flickr

I've never had a tapeworm, but that's not to say I haven't lived every day in fear of getting one. In the first world tapeworms are supposed to be rare but as I've learnt only too well, rare doesn't mean impossible, and if you live like a dog sooner or later you'll end up inflicted with the same diseases as one.

Here are some facts about tapeworms to compound your fear:

  1. They can be caught from eating harmless things like raw meat, fish and faeces
  2. They give up 90% of their body to reproduction by throwing up thousands of eggs into your gut every day
  3. They can grow up to 9m long
  4. They can develop into cancerous parasitic tumours impeding the function of your vital organs

That last bit is new by the way. Over in Colombia, a combination of doctors from US Centers for Disease Control and the UK's Natural History Museum diagnosed a 41-year old man with lung and liver tumours, only to discover they were constituted, not from human cells, but much smaller cancerous tape worm cells.

If that doesn't sound bad enough they think one of the worm's eggs must have penetrated the lining of the intestine, mutated there and ultimately become cancerous. Having HIV, the patient's immune responses were likely weakened.

Although the man's illness was apparent, it took months to discern whether it was a cancer or an infection. In the end, it was the presence of worm DNA that confirmed it as a worm cancer. Sadly, this diagnosis came only too late and the patient died just three days later in Meledin, Colombia.

In the New England Journal of Medicine, released today, doctors describe the case from 2013 as "crazy" and "unusual", two words I can't help think better suit my socks and sandal combo today than an apocalyptic parasitic cancer.