© Walter and Eliza Hall Institute
The finding could lead to a vaccine that would prevent pregnant women being infected by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which can increase the risk of miscarriage or severe birth defects.
And it could have implications in the treatment of mental illnesses such as bipolar and lead to drug therapies for those with compromised immune systems such as HIV and cancer patients.
In a paper published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe and in eLife, the predominantly Melbourne-based research team details how the parasite stockpiles food, giving it an energy source that it can draw on for decades.
The study also reveals a potential mechanism the parasite may use to change brain cells that may contribute to mental illness.
Lead author Dr Chris Tonkin, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, said Toxoplasma was a common parasite that was transmitted by cats and also found in raw or undercooked meat.
Once in humans, the parasite hijacks cells in the brain, heart, lungs and muscles.
Hunting down a hijacker
Dr Tonkin said it was estimated about 35 per cent of the Australian population carried the parasite, which could remain dormant for a person’s lifetime without their knowledge.
However in people with suppressed immune systems such as cancer patients it can be reactivated and lead to neurological damage or death.
In a process similar…