The “worm spit” of the Southeast Asian liver fluke, Opisthorchis viverrini, a known for causing liver cancer, has shown the ability to heal wounds, suggests Dr. Michael Smout with the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance laboratories at James Cook University in Cairns, North Queensland.
His research presentation into the fluke’s potential as a treatment for non-healing wounds won him Australia’s first FameLab competition, in which scientists have just three minutes to give an entertaining and informative account of their research.
Competing against 11 other scientists from across Australia, Dr. Smout used a large teddy bear, an oversized worm and a velvet liver to explain how liver parasites cause cancer, and how they might also assist in the development of treatments for non-healing wounds.
“It’s not a high-tech performance, but it’s a good story,” Smout said. “Throughout Southeast Asia there’s a very high rate of a particular form of liver cancer. It’s caused by chronic infection with a parasitic worm, or liver fluke, which is found in one of the staple foods – uncooked fish,” he said from Freemantle, where the national finals were held.
One-sixth of infected people develop liver cancer, and in Thailand alone 20,000 people die of this cancer each year.
“My research focuses on ‘worm spit’, molecules secreted by the parasites that cause cells to multiply faster than they normally would,” Dr Smout said. “That’s a key factor in the initiation of many cancers, and I’ve been able to isolate a molecule, granulin, that causes excessive cell growth.”
By making worm granulin in the laboratory, Dr Smout has found that it is not just a potent human cell growth stimulator – it also promotes wound healing. For more infectious disease news and information, visit and “like” the Infectious Disease News Facebook page.
“We don’t know yet how this works, but we suspect that as the worm feeds on the liver it also heals the wounds it creates. In the short term this would be beneficial to the human host, but the repeated wounding and healing over decades could lead to this form of cancer, which has a dismal prognosis.”
“Our work on this project is two-fold,” he said. “Firstly we aim to develop treatments or a vaccine to prevent liver fluke infection, which in turn will dramatically reduce the incidence of liver cancer in Thailand and surrounding countries.
“Secondly we believe that an in-depth understanding of liver fluke biology, particularly focusing on how it heals the wounds it creates, could lead to new treatments for non-healing wounds which are an increasing problem with smokers, diabetics and an aging population.”
Dr Smout will be packing up his props and heading to the UK in June to represent Australia at the International FameLab competition, held at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival.
Opisthorchis species are liver fluke parasites (trematodes or worms). Opisthorchis viverrini is known as the Southeast Asian liver fluke and O. felineus as the cat liver fluke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Most infected persons have no symptoms. In mild cases, symptoms may include indigestion, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation. With infections of longer duration, an enlarged liver and malnutrition may occur. In rare cases, inflammation of the gall bladder and ducts, and cancer of these structures may develop.
Infection is caused by eating raw or undercooked freshwater fish containing the larvae. Lightly salted, smoked, or pickled fish may contain infectious organisms. O. viverrini is found mainly in northeast Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.