Vision: laboratories, close-up photos of the worms, footage of Michael’s talk
Cairns researchers have discovered a wound-healing and cancer-causing hormone in the spit of a liver worm that lives in over nine million people and infects adventurous Australian tourists. The Southeast Asian liver fluke munches through the liver repairing the damage as it goes. But after many years of infection it can cause liver cancer and kills 20,000 people each year in Thailand alone.
Now James Cook University researcher Dr Michael Smout has found that a protein in the spit also sends wound-healing messages.
In 2010 James Cook University researchers discovered that the worm spit was promoting cell growth and wound repair. Then in 2012 Dr Michael Smout discovered a growth hormone in the spit, showed it was responsible both for the repair and in part for the cancer, and that it promotes wound-healing. He hopes that the work will lead both to new wound-healing compounds, and to a vaccine against the worm.
The discovery received no public attention at the time. But now its discoverer, Dr Michael Smout, is presenting the work publically for the first time thanks to FameLab Australia. He won the Australian final two weeks ago in Perth using a teddy bear to assist in his talk. He flies to the International FameLab final in the UK on Friday to represent Australia.
The discovery is part of a long-term James Cook University effort to understand and fight the fluke and other parasites led by Professor Alex Loukas.
“We were looking for potential vaccine candidates for this worm when we discovered that the spit had unusual properties,” says Alex. “Michael then zeroed in on the active agent.”
“The growth hormone makes cells multiply quickly and uncontrollably, which is a key stage at the start of many aggressive and deadly cancers of the brain, breast, colon and liver,” says Michael.
By making granulin in the laboratory, Michael and his colleagues then found that the hormone is not only a potent cell growth stimulator – it also sends wound-healing signals to human cells.
Just how the hormone stimulates wound-healing remains unknown, but the team thinks that the healing action of the worm spit helps limit the damage it causes to its human host, allowing both to live longer.
“As it feeds on blood and tissue in the liver, the worm creates wounds, and then heals them, we suspect. This is good for the host in the short term, but repeated wounding and healing over decades combined with chronic inflammation can lead to this deadly form of cancer,” Michael explains.
“We hope that our research will lead to vaccines to prevent cancer in impoverished regions of Asia, and to new treatments for non-healing wounds, which are an increasing problem for smokers, diabetics and an aging population here in Australia,” says Michael.
Dr Michael Smout is the 2014 winner of the inaugural FameLab Australia competition. FameLab is a global science communication competition for early-career scientists.
Michael will represent Australia at the International FameLab competition held at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival from 3-5 June, where he will present his lively three-minute talk on his research.
Dr Michael Smout, firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Boland, Science In Public, 0408 166 426, (03) 9398 1416, email@example.com
Linden Woodward, JCU, (07) 4232 1007, 04 1979 1564, firstname.lastname@example.org
The liver fluke, Opisthorchis viverrini, is endemic throughout Southeast Asia, primarily in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
It is ingested through eating raw fish contaminated with the larval stages of the parasite, which takes up residence in the human liver where it can live for decades but then causes cancer of the bile duct in the liver in about 17 per cent of cases. Known as cholangiocarcinoma, the cancer is particularly prevalent in Laos and North-East Thailand, where uncooked fish is a diet staple.
The team hopes to develop treatments such as vaccines to prevent cancer in the millions of infected people, the majority of whom live in some of the poorest regions of Southeast Asia where surgical interventions are unavailable.
Dr Michael Smout obtained his BSc from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane, Australia and his PhD from UQ/Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR).
His research interests have included melanoma, childhood viral infections and most recently parasitic helminths of humans. His expertise centres around the proteins secreted by parasitic helminths that facilitate their parasitic existence and utility of these proteins as anti-helminth vaccines.
His work has taken him around the world, including an 18-month position at George Washington University working with the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before relocating back to Queensland in 2004.
For the past 8 years Michael’s research has focused primarily on the search for carcinogenic molecules from the secretions of the human liver fluke Opisthorchis viverrinni – one of only three carcinogenic eukaryotic pathogens. His major achievements include identification of the parasite-derived growth factor, granulin, a protein that causes proliferation of human biliary cells and establishes a tumorigenic environment.
Dr Michael Smout is part of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine and the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance at James Cook University. His work is funded by grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) USA.
The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NHMRC, NCI or the NIH.
In 2014, the British Council and Fresh Science have joined forces to bring FameLab to Australia.
FameLab Australia will offer specialist science media training and, ultimately, the chance for early-career researchers to pitch their research at the FameLab International Grand Final in the UK at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival from 3 to 5 June 2014.
FameLab is an international communication competition for scientists, including engineers and mathematicians. Designed to inspire and motivate young researchers to actively engage with the public and with potential stakeholders, FameLab is all about finding the best new voices of science and engineering across the world.
Founded in 2005 by The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, FameLab, working in partnership with the British Council, has already seen more than 5000 young scientists and engineers participate in over 23 different countries – from Hong Kong to South Africa, USA to Egypt.
Now, FameLab comes to Australia in a landmark collaboration with the British Council and Fresh Science – Australia’s very own science-communicating competition.
For more information about FameLab Australia, head to www.famelab.org.au