In the beginning, we had to worry about smallpox. And then anthrax. And then Ebola. Now topping the list of parasitic biohazard nightmares, a brain-eating worm. As it turns out, they are real. You can get them. You can get a brain-eating worm.
Scientists affiliated with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the U.K. announced yesterday that they have sequenced the genome of a tapeworm that had lived in a British man's head for four years. The worm, which is called Spirometra erinaceieuropaei, is extremely rare, and can cause seizures and memory loss. Cases have typically popped up in the East, potentially caused by small infected shelfish, raw reptile or frog meat.
The 1-centimeter-long parasite burrowed 5 cm from the right side of the man's brain, to the left. It was removed surgically and he's recovering well. The cause of his illness was not disclosed, but one of the researchers suggested that foreign travel could bring a parasite so far away from its likeliest origin.
The worm's genome turns out to be huge -- the largest of any flatworm and about a third the size of the human genome, according to a release. The study, which was published in Genome Biology, suggests how strategies for treating the parasite might be developed.
The notion of a brain-dwelling worm is so inherently uncomfortable that it's worth posing a question frequently asked about biological horrors: Can terrorists weaponize any genome sequence they have in hand?
It's an inevitable question, asked most recently of Ebola. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that attacked the Tokyo subway with Sarin gas in 1995, had earlier tried to turn Ebola into a biological weapon, failing miserably, according to Scientific American.
When the genome of the 1918 flu virus was published in 2005, debate ensued over whether it was such a good idea, given that that pandemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. As the Centers for Disease Control says in a Q&A: "No. This report does not provide the blueprint for bioterrorists to develop a pandemic influenza strain."
Exactly what you'd expect people to say when they've developed the blueprint for a pandemic influenza strain.
The point here is more a meditation about what causes fear: There is no disease so dangerous or foul-sounding that it can't be depicted as even more dangerous, or more foul-sounding, by imagining an evil human actor weaponizing it.
Clearly, the worm under study doesn't have a huge taste for human brain, otherwise there'd probably have been more than 300 cases since 1953. The scientists who conducted the study declined to comment before deadline on how one might weaponize brain-eating worms.