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Secrets Of A Deadly Flatworm Revealed

Parasitic Worms

A harmful, parasitic flatworm, responsible for millions of infections worldwide, survives in the human bloodstream for decades. Researchers have been puzzled why the creature can survive for so long. They now have an answer – this is by constantly renewing its skin.

The flatworm in question is called Schistosoma mansoni (“schistosomes.”) The worm possesses a population of stem cells known as neoblasts that are capable of self-renewal. This enables the worm, in a sense, to “live forever”, through continual self-renewal.

The neoblast cells are pre-programmed to become cells that generate and regenerate the worm’s outer layer of skin. This ‘skin’ is a special tissue called the tegument. The skin acts as a barrier between the worm and the immune system of the host, conferring upon the worm a strong resistance.

Schistosomes cause the disease schistosomiasis. This arises when the eggs of the worm enter key parts of the body, like the liver and bladder. The parasitic larvae are carried by freshwater snails and the root of transmission is via water, when people bathe. The disease causes disfigurement, pain and several types of cancer. Schistosomiasis is a neglected tropical diseases and it results in a high number of annual fatalities.

It is hoped the new finding will lead to scientists pinpointing a weakness and finding a way to fight flatworm infections. This would be by disrupting the stem cells of schistosomes, to prevent a new skin from forming.

The research is published in the journal eLife, in a paper called “Stem cell progeny contribute to the schistosome host-parasite interface.”

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.