Colombian Man with HIV Killed by His Tapeworm’s Cancer

That headline slays me. Can you imagine how one person’s life could get any worse than that? First, you contract HIV. Bummer. Then you get a tapeworm. Super bummer. Then your tapeworm gets cancer. Yay! Wait. Not so fast. The tapeworm somehow transfers its cancer to you. Then you die. Wow. With all of that going on in this guy’s life, living in a third-world country was the least of his concerns.

Perhaps you’re wondering how a person could “get” cancer from another organism. It’s not like cancer is contagious, even between humans. But the genetic relationship between host and parasite is an odd one, especially when you throw the immune system suppressing HIV into the mix:

The Colombian man had HIV, which meant the tapeworm’s growth in his body was not halted the way it would have been by a healthy immune system, Live Science notes. A CDC pathologist tells the Washington Post that it took dozens of tests to reveal the cause of the illness, and finding tapeworm DNA in the tumors was a huge surprise. “This is the first time we’ve seen parasite-derived cancer cells spreading within an individual,” he says. “This is a very unusual, very unique illness.” The Post notes that the study raises questions about what other parasites dwelling in the human body can develop — and spread — cancer.

This does raise many questions. Cancer’s relationship to a host body is already strange. Have you ever wondered how cancer survives without being considered a “foreign” body? Why doesn’t the body attack and eject it as foreign material? The answer to that is fascinating.

Some cancers actually cloak themselves the same way a gestating baby does: with the hormone hCG. In simple terms, this hormone fools the body into thinking the gestating baby (or the growing tumor) is welcome in the body. In other words, this hormone locally suppresses immune response. It is very possible that the HIV in the Colombian man similarly suppressed the immune response to “foreign” material so that both the tapeworm and the cancer could grow in the Colombian man’s body.

So go and have a good day today. Your life could be a whole lot worse.