Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine have discovered new data on how a dangerous parasite controls a patient’s cells during its spread throughout the body. This is an important discovery that can help develop new drugs to treat parasitic infections. The study publishes mBio journal.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii affects up to a third of the world’s population. People, as a rule, become infected as a result of contact with cat feces, where it passes through its reproductive phases. Also, the infection can be picked up by eating contaminated food and water. The parasite causes life-threatening problems in some patients due to its ability to enter the brain. In the brain and other tissues, the parasite remains in the form of a hidden cyst, waiting for reactivation in case of weakened immunity.

The parasite, in fact, captures human cells, using them as vehicles to access various organ systems, including the brain. One of the key problems in the fight against infections such as toxoplasmos is the control of its spread to other parts of the body, scientists emphasize.

When it enters the body, the parasite invades the immune cells and makes them move – a behavior called hypermigration activity. How these parasites cause self-infected cells to migrate is largely unknown.

A new study sheds light on this important clinical issue. Scientists have discovered that the parasite disables the signaling system in the host cell, which leads to the activation of a protein called IRE1. Protein IRE1 helps the cell cope with stress, which may include its movement to another place. In toxoplasma infected cells, IRE1 binds to the cytoskeleton, a network of structural proteins that gives the cell a shape and coordinates movement. By attracting this network through IRE1, toxoplasma causes hypermigration.

These results show a new mechanism underlying the host’s interaction with the pathogen, demonstrating how host cells co-opt for the spread of persistent infection. A better understanding of the activation and movement processes of this pathogen in the body is useful when developing new drugs to reduce the spread of Toxoplasma gondii infection throughout the body.