SMHS Researcher Awarded $1.7 Million Grant to Study Bile Duct Cancer

Bile duct cancer is linked to liver fluke infection, a major public health concern in Southeast Asia where the population routinely eats undercooked fish.

bile duct cancer
October 10, 2018

A School of Medicine and Health Sciences professor was awarded more than $1.7 million to investigate the cellular and molecular links between liver fluke infection, a major public health problem in Southeast Asia, and bile duct cancer.

Liver fluke infection affects more than 10 million people in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand and Laos. Infection has been strongly linked to cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer, an uncommon but aggressive form of cancer caused by the chronic infection with a parasitic worm acquired by consuming uncooked or undercooked freshwater fish.

The population in Thailand impacted by the infection routinely prepare and consume undercooked fish caught by locals to lower costs. Paul Brindley, SMHS professor of  microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine, will use the five-year National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health grant to figure out why this worm infection causes liver cells to transform and become cancer.

“It’s an infection-related cancer, and we’re intrigued by and motivated to resolve the basic cellular question of how a worm could induce human tissue in the liver to become malignant,” Dr. Brindley said.

Cholangiocarcinoma is most prevalent in Southeast Asia, but it is not exclusive to the region. There have been reports of the cancer in the United States and areas of the West, including in military veterans who had been stationed in Southeast Asia.

Dr. Brindley and his team anticipate that their research can provide insight and a biomarker in the local people that would allow researchers to take an easier tissue sample—like blood or urine—and try to detect the change that liver fluke causes to make the cancer occur.

Using gene editing, Dr. Brindley’s team has already mutated one gene from the parasitic worm that makes it less harmful and are characterizing other parasite genes that contribute to the malignant changes in the human bile duct liver cells.

“Lots of people die from this infection. It’s a global public health problem—a neglected tropical disease that we would like to control,” Dr. Brindley said.

The study is a collaboration between Dr. Brindley and his colleagues at Khon Kaen University in northeastern Thailand—the main site for the study—and James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.

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