Could common parasites cause neurodegenerative plagues?

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Renowned TMU expert links man’s best friend to mind’s worst enemies.

Prof. Ted Fan is accustomed to his research being brushed off by health officials with the general consensus that “parasites won’t kill you.” But his years of experience working in Taipei Medical University’s medical missions in Swaziland, the Marshall Islands and Sao Tome tells that even common roundworms can cause obstruction and death, especially in children and the elderly, who are the most likely victims and the least likely to be treated. Even in relatively advanced countries with wonderful health care, they may be much more widespread and undetected than most of us suspect – and causing neurodegenerative epidemics as populations shift toward the elderly.

Most pregnant women are cautioned against cleaning cat boxes because feline toxoplasmosis can damage developing fetuses. A similar-sounding peril may transform our relations with dogs: Toxocara canis or canine roundworm. Those enjoying sushi also risk infection with other parasites, Prof. Fan warned. He called pricey salmon a major culprit, noting that all raw fish are “hard to test” and therefore of questionable safety, even given the government’s recent emphasis on food safety.

Global warming also plays a part here. WHO noted a dozen years ago that vast belts of land that used to freeze in winter no longer get cold enough to kill schistosomiasis, which penetrates the skin whenever it touches contaminated water, causing granulomas and even cancers. Travelers visiting places with poor water condition are exposed, but not widely tested.

While most cases are silent, they are also chronic, and the damage continues until treatment.

To facilitate testing, Prof. Fan helped develop a kit that costs only NT20 (US$0.70) per compact tube. It offers a sealed, stable and low-cost alternative to the messy, smelly and less-effective “one-drop smear” method used to this point. The kits have the further advantages of being storable indefinitely for re-checking of samples, and using two liquid preservatives that any hospital has on hand.

After years of working in TMU’s medical missions, Prof. Fan has seen large amount of resources invested to treating diseases, and he urges that parasites to be given higher priority in the public health agenda. He has written a NT$ 1 million grant so TMU can promote parasite testing in Swaziland by training technicians, and they in turn can train others. As this awaits approvals, he said the lab processing procedure is easy — but identification of different species takes expertise.

This renowned TMU scholar is making waves globally as well as locally. In a recent issue of the Clinical Microbiology Review, he linked T. canis to the beta amyloid and Aβ plaque formations that cause neurodegenerative disease via cerebral toxocariasis.

His next two projects continue this work, which five reviewers in his field have already sought to advance as a research priority with great promise. Prof. Fan may deal with parasites, but clearly this threat is not a minor matter – it is very big news indeed.

Visit Taipei Medical University for further information.