South Africa (SA) has high rates of epilepsy, with one in every 100 South Africans living with the brain disorder, mainly caused by parasitic infections that affect the brain.
In SA most of the seizure-causing brain infections in adults are caused by pig tapeworm larvae, Taenia solium, which is acquired by either eating undercooked pork or living near pigs such as on farms or in rural areas.
In an effort to understand even better how this tapeworm affects the human brain, scientists at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Neuroscience Institute have embarked on a five-year study using ethically sourced brain tissue that is ordinarily discarded during brain surgery, and are investigating whether the tapeworm larvae could have any benefits for the treatment of brain infections.
Dr Joseph Raimondo, a senior lecturer at UCT’s department of human biology, who recently got awarded the Wellcome Trust international intermediate fellowship to conduct the research, said while animal models had been used in the past to understand parasitic brain infection, animal models don’t always work well in simulating what’s going on in the human body.
“The epilepsy-causing larvae can’t be studied in any kind of detail in live humans. Animal models aren’t ideal as they don’t fully recapitulate the disease in humans.
“We’re getting the tapeworm that infects humans by harvesting them from pigs. We’re getting human brain tissue from people having surgery to treat epilepsy or other disorders. The tissue is normally discarded once removed, and instead can now help contribute to understanding how to manage brain conditions in the future. We can then treat the brain tissue with the tapeworm larvae and see what they do to the brain. This is all made possible by this important collaboration,” he said.