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Researchers discover how 'promiscuous parasites' hijack host immune cells
Date:9/21/2011

Toxoplasma gondii parasites can invade your bloodstream, break into your brain and prompt behavioral changes from recklessness to neuroticism. These highly contagious protozoa infect more than half the world's population, and most people's immune systems never purge the intruders.

Cornell researchers recently discovered how T. gondii evades our defenses by hacking immune cells, making it the first known parasite to control its host's immune system. Immunologists from the College of Veterinary Medicine published the study Sept. 8 in PLoS Pathogens, describing a forced partnership between parasite and host that challenges common conceptions of how pathogens interact with the body.

"Toxoplasma is an especially promiscuous parasite," said Eric Denkers, professor of immunology. "It infects nearly all warm-blooded species, most nucleated cell types and much of the human population. Although it lives in vital brain and muscle tissues, it usually causes no obvious reaction. Infection can seriously harm people with weak immune systems, yet most hosts experience no overt symptoms because Toxoplasma has found a way to coerce cooperation."

Famous for its manipulative powers, T. gondii has been shown to alter the brain chemistry of rodents so that they fearlessly pursue cats. Cats eat the rodents, delivering the parasites to their breeding ground in feline intestines. Similar manipulations have surfaced in human studies linking T. gondii infections to behavioral and personality shifts, schizophrenia and population variations, including cultural differences and skewed sex ratios. Denkers' study maps T. gondii's newfound ability to manipulate cells in the immune system at the molecular level.

"We found that Toxoplasma quiets its host's alarm system by blocking immune cells from producing certain cytokines, proteins that stimulate inflammation," said Denkers. "Cytokines are double-edged
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Contact: Joe Schwartz
Joe.Schwartz@cornell.edu
607-254-6235
Cornell University
Source:Eurekalert

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