How a man died from his tapeworm’s cancer

The egg of the parasite Hymenolepis nana

In Colombia in 2013, a man showed up to a hospital with a confusing array of symptoms. He was gaunt, having lost a lot of weight in the past few months. He was HIV-positive and hadn’t been taking his medication. He was fatigued, with a fever and a cough. Stool samples revealed that he was carrying the parasite Hymenolepis nana, a common type of tapeworm; strangely, a scan showed cancer-like nodes in his lungs and lymph nodes.

His doctors weren’t sure how to diagnose the man—the cells looked and behaved like cancer, but they weren’t the man’s own cells. The cancer seemed to be from another multi-celled organism. The disease progressed and 72 hours after he was admitted to the hospital, the man died.

Doctors determined that the man died from his tapeworm’s cancer—the first such case ever reported, according to the study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. And that’s got some scientists asking questions about how much we know about what causes cancer in the first place.

Scientists have known for a while that some infectious agents such as parasites can cause cancer. Two types of parasitic flatworms that live in the liver have been connected with increased incidence of cancer in bile ducts found in the intestines; another called Schistosoma haematobium can be ingested through water and is known to cause bladder cancer. The hypothesis is that these parasites can cause inflammation in the host’s tissues, which causes them to reproduce faster and increase the likelihood of a mutation.

But this case is different—the cancer was in the parasite’s cells, not the man’s. To see what might have caused the tapeworm’s cancer, the researchers compared the genes of the worm’s normal and cancerous cells. The researchers found that several of the genetic mutations in the cancerous cells occurred in the same genes as malignant mutations in human cells.

That not only shows a level of biological commonality, one researcher told NPR, but this case also shows how cancerous cells can spread out of control when the immune system is compromised.

This strange case raises even more questions…about the role of the immune system in fighting or protecting the body against cancer. “The host–parasite interaction that we report should stimulate deeper exploration of the relationships between infection and cancer,” the study authors write.

Some scary stuff out there, folks. Stuff we haven’t figured out, yet.

Mexico’s Supreme Court says OK to grow your own, dude!

Mexican cannabis

The Mexican Supreme Court has opened the door to legalizing marijuana, delivering a pointed challenge to the nation’s strict substance abuse laws and adding its weight to the growing debate in Latin America over the costs and consequences of the war against drugs.

The vote by the court’s criminal chamber declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use. While the ruling does not strike down current drug laws, it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could ultimately rewrite them…

The decision reflects a changing dynamic in Mexico, where for decades the American-backed antidrug campaign has produced much upheaval but few lasting victories. Today, the flow of drugs to the United States continues, along with the political corruption it fuels in Mexico. The country, dispirited by the ceaseless campaign against traffickers, remains engulfed in violence…

The marijuana case has ignited a debate about the effectiveness of imprisoning drug users in a country with some of the most conservative drug laws in Latin America. But across the region, a growing number of voices are questioning Washington’s strategy in the drug war. With little to show for tough-on-crime policies, the balance appears to be slowly shifting toward other approaches…

Although the rising production of higher-quality marijuana in the United States reduces demand for Mexican imports, experts say that Mexican gangs continue to account for an important percentage of the American supply…

The one thing that could significantly affect the cartels’ marijuana business is legislation in the United States. As marijuana growing for commercial purposes in America expands, demand for Mexican marijuana could eventually dry up.

Marijuana is just one of many sources of income for the cartels, which smuggle narcotics across the border to the United States and run kidnapping and extortion rings at home. The criminal infrastructure will persist whether or not marijuana use is legal.

President Enrique Peña Nieto said his government would respect the Supreme Court’s decision, but his government, legislators and security and health officials all oppose legalization, as does the Roman Catholic Church.

Armando Santacruz is determined to change minds. Invoking the specter of Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, he likes to remind people: “Bad regulation is better than whatever regulation El Chapo and the narcos can provide.”

Gangsters will always find way to profit from a corrupt society. Reducing that corruption by modern means, enlightened remedies reduce the effectiveness of criminal elements, diminish the profitability of corruption. A lesson we should have learned decades ago.

The process of removing the whole effect of bad laws, incompetent understanding – like Nixon’s War on Drugs – will continue to be an uneven process. Like any social reform. Nevertheless, as victories roll out, progress will not be halted.

Canada’s new PM said he would appoint women to half the cabinet posts. He did.

Click to enlargeChris Wattie/Reuters

Canada’s new cabinet looks like Canada

Justin Trudeau promised in June that half his cabinet would be female if he was elected Canada’s prime minister. Today he got the job, the women — and the bruised egos of a few experienced men who didn’t get the nod.

Trudeau named 15 women to a cabinet of 30, including Jody Wilson-Raybould, an aboriginal lawyer from British Columbia as minister of justice and attorney general; Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist as trade minister; Jane Philpott, a first-time member of parliament and family doctor, at health.

Asked after his swearing-in ceremony why an equal cabinet was important to him, Trudeau said, “Because it’s 2015.”

“It’s a message to Canadian women — and young women in particular — that this world is about you,” said Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec who put women in half his provincial ministries in 2007. “You have to move beyond the old boy’s network.”

Trudeau’s ‘parity cabinet’ is a first in a country where women started voting in 1916, four years before similar rights in the U.S. It ends a centuries-old habit by leaders of large English-speaking countries, including the U.K. and U.S., to name men to a large majority of government posts. France, Italy and the Nordic countries already have had parity cabinets. Canada has been slower than others to elect women, ranking No. 50 last year in women’s government representation on the International Parliamentary Union’s list of 190 countries, down from 17th in 1997…

Trudeau’s action sets a benchmark for his English-speaking Group of Seven colleagues. U.S. President Barack Obama’s 16-member cabinet is currently 25 percent female; David Cameron’s U.K. cabinet is 33 percent female.

We’ll see what happens,” Laure Liswood, co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders said. “Number One that the sky doesn’t fall.”

Strange as it may seem, there are beaucoup folks in the United States who don’t think the sky will fall, either. We just ain’t in power.

Pic of the day — yesterday

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and selling of good into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in commodities… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.” Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955”, Journal of Retailing (Spring 1955)…

Long ago, in a galaxy in a factory town far away from New Mexico, I served an apprenticeship to a shoemaker. His slogan was “We can repair anything but a broken heart.”

I left to make more money as a line mechanic in a factory. He was out of business by the 1960s, anyway.