Worldwide Cancer Research Menu

Research reveals how tropical parasite hijacks cells

Scientists have pinned down how a dangerous tropical parasite, which is transmitted by ticks, manages to turn healthy cells into cancer-like invasive cells in an article published this week in the journal Nature*.

Microscopic Theileria parasites infect the blood of mammals, particularly cattle, causing serious illness. “Evidence that Theileria can infect white blood cells and make them behave like cancer cells was first published In Nature 30 years ago,” says lead researcher, Professor Jonathan Weitzman.

“Now we finally think we understand some important details of how this works.”

“We discovered that while the parasite is living inside the white blood cell it secretes a special protein, called Pin1. This protein is then able to ‘mess around’ with the cell and trigger mechanisms which control cell behaviour – so it starts acting like a cancer cell.

“We also found that an anti-parasite drug can target this protein and reverse the cancer-like state. This is an exciting example of how parasites hijack the host cell and how these parasite proteins can be targeted by drugs. It also directly links a parasite protein to cancer-causing cell processes, gives us a real insight into how infection with parasites and other organisms might lead to cancer in humans.”

Dr Helen Rippon, Head of Research at Worldwide Cancer Research - who supported the study, said:  “Some parasite infections have long been linked to certain types of human cancer. Schistosomiasis, for example, which affects an estimated 240 million people globally, is a known risk factor for bladder cancer- accounting for up to three per cent of cases worldwide**.

“These findings are really exciting, as they help show how outside forces like parasites might be able to manipulate cell machinery to trigger cancer. By understanding more about how this is done, we can start to look for ways to stop it happening.”


* Marsolier et al, 2015. Theileria parasites secrete a prolyl isomerase to maintain host leukocyte transformation. DOI:

** Global Cancer Facts and Figures (2nd edition)