Toxoplasma steals immune cells’ identity

2 minute read

The world’s most successful parasite continues to impress.

In a recent study, researchers have shown how the toxoplasma parasite is able to spread around the body so successfully.

Turns out the canny parasite injects a protein into the nuclei of the body’s immune cells and – before you can say “Medibank” – it has stolen the cell’s identity. In chemical terms, the toxoplasma tricks the immune cell into thinking it’s another type of cell, allowing the parasite to wreak havoc around the body. Meanwhile, the poor old immune cell experiences a behavioural change.

Researchers from Stockholm University, led by Professor Antonio Barragan, recently published their findings in the scientific journal Cell Host & Microbe. The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers from France and the US.

“It is astonishing that the parasite succeeds in hijacking the identity of the immune cells in such a clever way,” Professor Barragan said.

The body regulates the way its immune system fights infection very strictly. Scientists have been scratching their heads for ages, trying to figure out how the toxoplasma parasite can infect so many people and animal species and spread so easily.

The parasite causes infected cells, which normally shouldn’t travel in the body, to move very quickly and spread to different organs.

The study likens infected immune cells to Trojan horses or “zombies” because of the way they’re taken over by the parasite. It also finds toxoplasma is much more targeted in the way it affects different parts of the body than researchers had thought previously.

The WHO reckons around a third of humans carry the toxoplasma parasite, often unknowingly, while toxoplasmosis is probably the most common parasitic infection in humans.

Of course, there’s often a cat behind this sort of nonsense.

In humans, dogs or birds, toxo reproduces by simple cell division. In felines, however, the parasite reproduces sexually in the cat’s intestines. Good times for the parasite, bad news for the rest of us.

If your cat has a tail to tell, ask them to email

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