Hooked on a new scientific discovery

I love it when my archaic, obscure knowledge base becomes relevant for a brief moment. When I first decided to be a parasitologist, my major professor warned me that it was a dying field. There might not be much future in it. We had made so much progress with infectious diseases by that time that he wasn’t sure there’d be much more to do.

Well, after 50 years, we haven’t eradicated any of the diseases, and most are still causing tremendous suffering. Many are resurging and getting worse as they become resistant to control methods developed 50 years ago. Somehow, I have always had the feeling that one should bet on the blues. 

By the way, parasitology is the study of parasites. These include single-celled, infectious agents, all the parasitic worms and parasitic arthropods. Many of these live in the tissues, blood or intestines of living things. Perhaps my major professor defined a parasitologist the most succinctly when he wrote, “A parasitologist is one who looks for truth in strange places.”

I have to admit things have taken some surprising turns. For example, the first parasite I ever found was in the intestine of a road kill robin (Turdus migratorius) back in the fall of 1970. The parasite was Prosthorhyncus formosus, a member of the Phylum Acanthocephalan. These are also known as spiny-headed or thorny-headed worms because they have spines on their head. Duh. The prefix “acanth” means “a thorn.” In the case of Prosthorhynchus, the word “rhynchus” means “snout or nose.”

These obscure worms live in the intestinal tract of many animals but seldom seem to cause serious disease. They were first observed way back in the 1600s.  Mostly they have a two-host cycle where the adult lives in a vertebrate, and the immature stage lives in an invertebrate of some kind. The latter is a food staple for the adult host. 

The adult worm inserts its cactus-like head into the tissues of the intestine and unfolds its spines to anchor it in place. The spines direct backward, so it is very difficult to dislodge the worm once it has implanted. It does not feed on host tissue but absorbs nutrient from the gut, competing with the host. Most of these worms are only a couple of millimeters long. So, if there is only one or two of them, the competition is not great. 

I only tell you all of this because this Acanthocephalan was my first parasite, and I am fond of it. Besides, when a person knows something, no matter how inconsequential, it is difficult not to tell someone else about it when there is an opportunity. In fact, most people want to tell you what they think they know even if they don’t really know it. And keeping my mouth shut has never been my strong suit. 

Today, Acanthocephalans are newly significant, which is the point of this column. A team of scientists has developed a technique for attaching skin grafts based on a design suggested by this parasitic worm. They have created an adhesive patch with tiny needles that swell when exposed to water. They place the patch over the damaged skin, and the needles swell as they come in contact with the moisture of the skin. The tiny, swollen needles adhere, holding the graft in place. This binding is reported to be stronger than surgical staples.

Such a patch is similar to the invention of Velcro fasteners by George de Mestral in 1941. That idea came to him as he took a close look at the burrs which stuck to his clothes and his dog’s fur when walking in the Alps. 

This new skin transplant is like Velcro for human skin. Could we possibly do away with buttons? Maybe I could recycle my old knowledge and become a fashion designer! With such tight-fit clothing, getting dressed would be painstaking. Getting undressed would just be painful. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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