Friday, May 12, 2017

Could Parasites Be Causing Prostate Cancer?

Long ago in the mid-1600s, a fellow named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek started making lenses…as a hobby (remember, Facebook and Netflix were not invented yet). He was so adept at grinding glass that his lenses were able to magnify objects about 270 times their normal size. Leeuwenhoek soon discovered a whole new universe right here on earth, a universe of creatures so tiny that only his microscope could reveal them. He called them "animalcules."

With his powerful microscope, Leeuwenhoek became the first person to see amoebae, bacteria, and blood cells. For these revolutionary discoveries, he is considered “the father of microbiology.”

But after looking at endless water samples, the ever-curious Leeuwenhoek wondered what bodily fluids looked like under his microscope. While Leeuwenhoek examined blood, sweat, and tears (and a lot of dental plaque), a medical student in 1677 named Johan Ham told Leeuwenhoek that he spotted animalcules swimming in the semen he collected from a gonorrhea patient.

Believing these animalcules might be a result of disease, Leeuwenhoek procured a clean semen sample from his own stock - obtained fresh after proper lovemaking with his wife, he insisted. Leeuwenhoek confirmed Ham's finding and went on to discover the same tiny eel-like critters teeming in the semen from many other species. This is how we came to make the “seminal” discovery of sperm cells.

Other people in Leeuwenhoek’s day mistook these microscopic beasties squiggling around in the semen to be "merely" parasites, referring to them as “seminal Worms.” In fact, we didn’t realize that these “semen parasites” played a key role in fertilization until the 1870s when Oscar Hertwig spotted the fusing of nuclei from sperm and egg after contact…in sea urchins of all places.

We didn’t figure out where babies come from until fairly recently – 1870. White studying sea urchins, Oscar Hertwig noticed that the nucleus in the sperm fuses with the nucleus in the egg (the nucleus is the cellular organelle housing DNA).

While the mystery of sperm has been solved, we have indeed discovered a variety of pathogens that can inhabit our nether regions. Trichomoniasis, scrotal filariasis, and Chlamydia are just some of the unpleasant conditions caused by these most intimate of uninvited guestsAn unsettling new study led by graduate student Darrelle Colinot at the Indiana University School of Medicine may have found yet another.

In experiments performed in mice, researchers found that the common single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii disseminates to the prostate within two weeks after infection. And there it remains in the form of latent tissue cysts for at least sixty days, but probably for the rest of the host’s life. The presence of these parasitic cysts led to chronic inflammation in the prostate, which is a precursor to benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), the reason why older men have to get up multiple times to pee at night. Chronic inflammation in the prostate is also connected to prostate cancer, which afflicts more than 200,000 men in the US each year.

Parasites in prostates. The control panel shows cells from an uninfected mouse prostate (the nuclei are stained blue). The other panel shows the presence of a Toxoplasma tissue cyst (green) in the prostate 14 days post-infection (14 D.P.I.).

If Toxoplasma is also found to trigger chronic inflammation in human prostate, the finding takes on added significance given the prevalence of the parasite in the human population. According to the CDC, up to 22% of Americans are infected with the parasite, which is transmitted through oocysts that are excreted into the environment by infected cats or through tissue cysts present in game and livestock. 

Women are commonly advised to avoid gardening, changing the litterbox, and consuming undercooked meat while pregnant so the parasite doesn’t transmit to the fetus. Men may need to heed these warnings as well to avoid a prostate full of parasites, but a lot of critical work still needs to be done before we can ascertain whether this discovery has relevance to prostate issues in humans. Regardless, our study introduces Toxoplasma-infected mice as a powerful new model for the study of prostatic inflammation.

Prostate cancer is believed to arise from a constellation of events that can involve a person’s genes and environmental exposures. Infectious agents and carcinogens have previously been proposed as agents that can injure the prostate and lead to the development of chronic inflammation. Numerous types of bacteria and viruses have been shown to infect the prostate and cause an inflammatory response; this new study in mice suggests that the parasite Toxoplasma might be added to this list.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan

Note:  Bill Sullivan is a co-author on the study highlighted in this article.


Colinot, D., Garbuz, T., Bosland, M., Wang, L., Rice, S., Sullivan, W., Arrizabalaga, G., & Jerde, T. (2017). The common parasite induces prostatic inflammation and microglandular hyperplasia in a mouse model The Prostate DOI: 10.1002/pros.23362

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