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Love is in the air and, for parasites, inside our bodies

Michael H. Hsieh

As featured in a PBS video, schistosome worms form lifelong bonds and females produce thousands of eggs daily only when they live inside human hosts, says Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D.

“Love is in the air, the sea, the earth and all over and inside our bodies,” the PBS Valentine’s Day-themed video begins. As the public television station notes, what humans consider romance can look vastly different for creatures big and small, including serenading mice, spiders who wrap their gifts in silk and necking giraffes.

The “spooning” parasites segment of the video is where viewers see research conducted by Michael H. Hsieh, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Clinic for Adolescent and Adult PedIatric OnseT UroLogy at Children’s National Health System, and video filmed in his lab.

Schistosomiasis, a chronic infection with schistosome worms, is a distinctly one-sided love affair. As shown in Dr. Hsieh’s video clips, the male worm is shorter and fatter and equipped with a groove, a love canal where the longer, thinner female lodges, enabling the pair to mate for decades. This lifelong bond and the thousands of eggs it produces daily can only occur when the worms are inside the human host, Dr. Hsieh says.

While the video stresses Valentine’s Day romance, there are few rosy outcomes for humans who are the subject of the schistosome worms’ attention.

“Heavily and chronically infected individuals can have lots of problems,” Dr. Hsieh says. “This is a stunting and wasting health condition that prevents people from reaching their growth potential, impairs their academic performance and leaves them sapped of the energy needed to exercise or work. It truly perpetuates a cycle of poverty, particularly for affected children.”

Even the potential bright spot in this sobering story, the ability of the body’s immune system to fend off the parasitic worms, is only partly good news.

Schistosome worms have co-evolved with their human hosts, learning to take advantage of human vulnerabilities. Take the immune system. If it kicks too far into overdrive in trying to wall off the eggs from the rest of the body, it can interfere with organ function and trigger liver failure, kidney failure and early onset of bladder cancer, he says.

However, Dr. Hsieh and other schistosomiasis researchers are working on ways to positively harness the human immune response to schistosome worms, including developing diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. He says he and his colleagues would “love” to eliminate schistosomiasis as a global scourge.