A 41-year-old man from Columbia is dead, 72 hours after learning that tapeworms are the cause of his growing lung cancer. The man also had untreated HIV, and doctors believe his weakened immune system aided the tapeworms to multiply inside of him, finally wrecking him.
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The unnamed man had lung tumors, and doctors eventually found out that the cancer cells growing inside of him weren’t those of human, but those of a tapeworm.
"We were amazed when we found this new type of disease — tapeworms growing inside a person, essentially getting cancer, that spreads to the person, causing tumors," said study researcher Dr. Atis Muehlenbachs, a staff pathologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Infectious Diseases Pathology Branch (IDPB).
The man visited the hospital after suffering from weight loss, cough, and fever for several months, and there the Columbian doctors discovered he’d been diagnosed with HIV a decade ago and that he’d not been taking any antiretroviral drugs as recommended.
A series of CT scan indicated lymph nodes and growing tumors in the man’s lung, and further biopsies revealed something unusual in the cells of the tumors. Confused, the Columbian doctors reached out to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for help to properly diagnose the patient.
The CDC team found that the cells in the man’s tumor did not behave or appear like those of human, and that they multiplied and lumped together when analyzed under a powerful microscope. They were also 10 times smaller compared to those of humans.
Further tests revealed DNA that came from H.nana, a type of tapeworm, in the man’s tumor. Researchers then believed that the HIV-weakened immunity of the patient kept the tapeworm growing in his body, and the cell mutations in the parasite made the man’s tumor cells cancerous.
This is the first reported case of an individual getting sick from cancer cells that developed inside a parasite such as a tapeworm. Health experts believe about 75 million people worldwide are infected with the H.nana tapeworm.
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The problem doctors now face is how to treat another patient that comes down with the same diagnosis as the deceased patient. This is because drugs used in treating tapeworm may be ineffective at treating cancer cells produced by tapeworms; there is however the probability that dedicated cancer treatments might prevail against tumors caused by parasitic cancer cells.