Showing posts with label Entamoeba. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Entamoeba. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This Month in Blastocystis Research - MAR 2015

"Show me your gut bacteria and I'll tell you if you're infected with Entamoeba"

One of my 'partners in crime', science reporter Jop de Vrieze, made me aware of a study just published now by Elise R Morton and colleagues. The study appeared in bioRxiv—The Preprint Server for Biology, operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The study is totally in line with one of the research foci in our lab.

The paper is called 'Variation in rural African gut microbiomes is strongly shaped by parasitism and diet', and can be downloaded here. The backbone in this type of research is the recognition that studies revealing a large contrast between the microbiomes of populations in developing countries and those of populations in urban industrialised areas have shown that geography is an important factor associated with the gut microbiome, but that such studies yet have to disentangle the effects of factors such as climate, diet, host genetics, hygiene and parasitism.

It's very refreshing that for once, 'parasitism' is included in such considerations. As mentioned in one or more of my previous blog posts, we have metagenomics data stongly indicating that Blastocystis colonisation is associated with certain microbial communities. As of yet, we have no idea about cause and effet, but the idea alone is immensely intriguing.

A large and a small cyst of Entamoeba coli. Courtesy of Dr Marianne Lebbad.
Now, Morton et al. have produced data that suggest that the presence of Entamoeba—another gut-associated eukaryotic genus comprising multiple species of varying pathogencitiy—is strongly correlated with microbial composition and diversity. They showed that an individual's liability to being infected by Entamoeba could be predicted with 79% accuracy based on gut microbiome composition.

The authors used 16S PCR and Illumina-based sequencing of 16S amplicons, and I could have wished that molecular assays, e.g., the 18S PCR that we have developed in our lab + associated software, had also been used to test the faecal samples from the 64 individuals enrolled in the study in order to obtain more precise data, not only on Entamoeba but also on other human-associated gut protists, such as Blastocystis.

While alpha (intra-host) diversity of Entamoeba-positive individuals was significantly higher than that of Entamoeba-negative individuals, analysis of the beta (inter-host) diversity revealed that gut communities across Entamoeba-positive individuals were more similar than across Entamoeba-negative individuals, suggesting that, as alpha diversity increases, there are fewer potential stable states for individual gut communities, or that infection by Entamoeba drives changes in the microbiome that are dominant over other factors.

Right—this is Entamoeba, I know, but in principle, the type of analyses that were performed in the present study could be applicable to Blastocystis, Dientamoeba, and other gut parasites, which may help us understand their role in health and disease. Are these parasites able to influence gut microbiota? Can they be used for gut microbiota manipulation? Or do they only infect people with certain microbiota profiles? Time will show... maybe.

For those of you who would like to read more about what is shaping our microbiomes and how the gut microbiota may impact on our gastrointestinal health, I recently did a couple of blog posts for United European Gastroenterology (UEG) Education that might be of some interest:

Are we finally saluting the fungal kingdom as a co-ruler of GI health and disease?

The intestinal microbiome—Rosetta Stone or Tower of Babel?


Morton ER, Lynch J, Froment A, Lafosse S, Heyer E, Przeworski M, Blekham R, Segurel L.
Variation in rural African gut microbiomes is strongly shaped by parasitism and diet. bioRxiv doi

Thursday, July 3, 2014

This Month in Blastocystis Research (JUN 2014) - IMECs Edition

In June there was a paper out in Frontiers in Microbiology by Laura W Parfrey and co-workers identifying the diversity of intestinal microbial eukaryotic communities (IMECs) in humans and other mammals. It's probably one of the most interesting papers I've read for a long time; maybe because it expands on many of the things I've been blogging about - or at least intended to blog about (!) - over the past two years.

What the team did was to do comprehensive analysis of IMECs in both humans and mammals using broad specificity primers for PCR and next generation sequencing technology-based sequencing of the PCR products. While I'm not in a position to validate the analysis of the data, I'd just want to highlight the importance of the approach. It is very rare to see this type of analysis, despite the fact that it's probably the best currently available approach to studying the ecology, homeostasis and public health significance of IMECs. Some of these euks have probably co-evolved with humans and other animals over thousands and thousands of years and therefore may constitute part of the habitual/commensal flora; and so a current working hypothesis (Hygiene Theory) is that losing IMECs ('defaunation' due to Western life style (excessive hygiene and changes in diet)) may prove detrimental to human health and may be one of the most important reasons why we develop for instance allergies and other autoimmune diseases.

Blastocystis virtually obligate finding in Malawi citizens?
And indeed, what the authors found was that among 23 study individuals residing in agrarian communities in Malawi, Blastocystis and Entamoeba were almost obligate findings (not found in two infants, but apart from that almost a consistent finding), while none of the 13 (somewhat age-matched) study individuals from Boulder, Colorado, were infected with Blastocystis, and only two individuals had Entamoeba coli. I was surprised to read that Dientamoeba was not detected in any of the populations; it appears that there is a strong geographical component to the distribution of this parasite, but as the authors mention, specific tools are needed to confirm the absence.

The funny thing is that although this is not a paper specifically on Blastocystis, it is probably the most interesting surveys on Blastocystis coming from the US and a very valuable Blastocystis. Data on Blastocystis in this country is really scarce, but if the prevalence of the parasite is really as low as indicated in this study, then it's maybe quite understandable! And maybe (and this is a highly presumptuous 'maybe', I know) Blastocystis might even therefore an emerging pathogen in the US? When was the US experiencing the great IMECs wipe out? Can it be confirmed? Is there - within the US - also a strong geographical compoenent to the prevalence of IMECs?

Anyway, there are many interesting observations in the paper - and please visit the supporting files. Blastocystis ST11 was confirmed in an elephant (which also hosted Entamoeba moshkovskii! Probably first report of this parasite in an animal). ST13 was found in a Gazelle; not surprisingly, but nice to see independent data confirming what few researchers have found until now. ST4 was found in a sheep and in Okapis; when it comes to ST4, I'm hardly surprised about anything; it appears to be such a sporadic finding in a diversity of non-human hosts (i.e. low host specificity and incidental); one sheep also had ST8, a subtype almost exclusively seen in non-human primates (even South American monkeys rather than for instance African monkeys and apes), so this was surprising too. ST8 was moreover found in two kangaroos (not the first time), in an okapi (different from two first ones) which also hosted ST12, and in an armadillo!

Take home messages include:

1) The study is one of the first to virtually survey IMECs in human and non-human faecal samples using NGS tools.
2) The study confirms a very high prevalence of Blastocystis in some sub-Saharan African communities (for more on this, see a previous blog post), and interestingly, the prevalence and co-infection rate of (up to four species of) Entamoeba was comparably high.
3) Data suggest that IMECs in Western populations are highly reduced compared to rural African populations, but we still need to know more about the relative distribution of for instance fungi and whether these fungi are actually colonising the gut or just carry over from ingested food; right now, it seems as if there might be an inverse relationship between fungal and non-fungal IMECs... something that we can hopefully soon gather sufficient data on for publishing.
4) For those interested in Blastocystis subtype data, including host specificity and geographical distribution, there is a lot to look at in the paper (including supplementary files).

There's a lot more to be said about this paper, but I will sort of leave it here. But please go and read it!


Parfrey, L., Walters, W., Lauber, C., Clemente, J., Berg-Lyons, D., Teiling, C., Kodira, C., Mohiuddin, M., Brunelle, J., Driscoll, M., Fierer, N., Gilbert, J., & Knight, R. (2014). Communities of microbial eukaryotes in the mammalian gut within the context of environmental eukaryotic diversity Frontiers in Microbiology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00298

Sunday, June 1, 2014

This Month in Blastocystis Research (MAY 2014)

To me, this month was mostly about Blastocystis finding its way to the ASM 2014 general meeting. It was a huge honour for me to be one of the speakers in the Parasitology session 'Passion for Parasites', thanks to an invitation from Dr Lynne Garcia and ASM.

ASM2014 took place in Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
It's pleasing that the Blastocystis research community is continuously expanding. I currently have contact to several research groups who are venturing into Blastocystis research, including epidemiology, genome sequence analysis, and Blastocystis (and other intestinal microbial eukaryotes (IMEs)) as part of the human intestinal microbiome. At the ICOPA2014 conference in Mexico in August, there will be a full session on Blastocystis from an IBS perspective with talks by Dr Pablo Maravilla, Kenneth Boorom, Dr Pauline D Scanlan and myself. There will also be a pre-congress workshop on molecular parasitology which will include Blastocystis subtyping arranged by Dr Juan David Ramirez Gonzalez and myself.

This month we also launched the website for the 1st International Blastocystis Symposium, which can be accessed at  - we hope that the meeting will receive great interest and contribute to promoting research on Blastocystis and other IMEs. Please go to the site to sign up for updates.

Moving on to 'paper of the month', I would just briefly highlight a study by Wu, Mirza and Tan, who used Caco-2 human colonic cells and different strains of Blastocystis sp. ST4 and ST7 to compare and demonstrate the strains' relative ability to adhere to enterocytes and to disturb cell barrier function. The paper is very interesting for a variety of reasons. For instance it appears that metronidazole resistance may be linked to a fitness cost as indicated by reduced adhesion ability.

But it would be nice to know how the results reflect the in vivo situation: What actually happens in the colon? It may be so that Blastocystis can adhere to enterocytes and even inflict damage as indicated in the paper, but what if Blastocystis is not able to make it anywhere near the enterocytes?

Now, some parasites are intracellular - e.g. Cryptosporidium and microsporidia -, Giardia has a ventral disc by which it can latch on to the intestinal lining; Entamoebas are motile, etc. Blastocystis is neither intracellular, nor is it motile, but can it attach to enterocytes or is it simply being 'kneeded' and passed along with the remaining luminal content by peristalsis? Or is it lodged in the mucus layer perhaps - trapped by chance, or actively making its way to/through it?

In the colon, two mucus layers exist; an inner layer void of bacteria, and an outer layer that serves as a home for some bacteria but that also prevents these bacteria from reaching the inner layer. Hence, the colon inner mucus layer separates the intestinal lining from the trillions of bacteria inhabiting our large intestine and as such has a tremendously important role in limiting bacterial contact with the epithelium and moving bacteria distally. Mucus is produced by our goblet cells and is made up by mucins, highly glycosylated proteins that we cannot degrade. Moreover, these mucins serve as food for commensal bacteria and are highly resistant to protease activity unless destabilised. The mucus layer traps antimicrobial peptides and other immune effectors and hence creates an effective barrier between the mucosal lining and the microbiota.

Some pathogenic bacteria, and also Giardia for instance, have flagella that allow them to move against the flow caused by secreted mucins, towards the intestinal epithelium, - one way of getting past the iron doors of the mucus layer.

Entamoeba histolytica possesses a lectin-like adhesin that enables it to anchor to the inner mucus layer. After actively destabilising the mucus layer, E. histolytica can disrupt the mucus layer by cysteine protease activity and get into contact with enterocytes. By enzyme activity the parasite can cleave MUC2, the major intestinal mucin, and this may be an initial step in a series of events resulting in invasive disease; however, in many cases enzymatic cleavage of MUC2 may be blocked by glycosylation of the cleavage site; this may be one of the explanations why E. histolytica infection may only sometimes proceed to invasive disease.

Recently, Fayer and colleagues observed that in histology sections Blastocystis was seen to adhere to the intestinal epithelium. However, since about 98% of the mucus is water, the mucus layer may vanish completely during histological procedures with important consequences for the interpretation of observations.

I believe that the use of the mucosal simulator of the human intestinal microbial ecosystem (M-SHIME) would be nearly ideal for studying Blastocystis. M-SHIME is an in vitro dynamic gut model that takes advantage of five double-jacketed vessels, respectively simulating the stomach, small intestine and the three colon regions. The model is supplemented with human gut microbiota and mucin-covered microcosms. My colleagues and I have applied for funding in order to use this model to study Blastocystis ecology, but so far, we have not had any luck with the funding agencies.

Genome and transcriptome studies of Blastocystis should also enable us to identify whether this organism has and expresses proteins that facilitate invasion of the mucus layer and adherence to enterocytes and in which way these potential mechanisms may be influenced.

Note to iOS users: You have the option of making a 'Blastocystis Parasite Blog' app! When you're browsing the site on your iPad for instance, simply add the site to your home screen (use the arrow/box icon in the top of the browser), and there you go - you've created an app icon on your desktop!


Hansson GC (2012). Role of mucus layers in gut infection and inflammation. Current Opinion in Microbiology, 15 (1), 57-62 PMID: 22177113

Fayer R, Elsasser T, Gould R, Solano G, Urban J Jr, & Santin M (2014). Blastocystis tropism in the pig intestine. Parasitology Research, 113 (4), 1465-72 PMID: 24535732 

Johansson ME, Sjövall H, & Hansson GC (2013). The gastrointestinal mucus system in health and disease. Nature Reviews  Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 10 (6), 352-61 PMID: 23478383 

Van den Abbeele, P., Roos, S., Eeckhaut, V., MacKenzie, D., Derde, M., Verstraete, W., Marzorati, M., Possemiers, S., Vanhoecke, B., Van Immerseel, F., & Van de Wiele, T. (2012). Incorporating a mucosal environment in a dynamic gut model results in a more representative colonization by lactobacilli Microbial Biotechnology, 5 (1), 106-115 DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-7915.2011.00308.x

Wu Z, Mirza H, & Tan KS (2014). Intra-subtype variation in enteroadhesion accounts for differences in epithelial barrier disruption and is associated with metronidazole resistance in Blastocystis subtype-7. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 8 (5) PMID: 24851944

Friday, February 28, 2014

This Month In Blastocystis Research (FEB 2014) - The Protease Edition

A few interesting papers on Blastocystis appeared this month on PubMed. I would like to give a great salute to Ron Fayer's group in Maryland who took to investigating faecal samples and tissue sections from naturally infected pigs. Due to the protease theme of this blog post, I won't go into detail with this paper, but only highlight a few points. The researchers found Blastocystis ST5 in faecal samples from all 11 pigs investigated. By examination of tissue sections they found that Blastocystis existed in the lumen of the jejunum, caecum, proximal and distal colon, but not in the duodenum and ileum. Moreover:
"In tissue sections, Blastocystis was found primarily in the lumen usually associated with digested food debris, sometimes in close proximity or appearing to adhere to the epithelium, but no stages were found to penetrate the epithelium or the lamina propria."
So, the authors did a great job to describe Blastocystis tropism in the pig intestine. It is new to me that the parasite can be found in the jejunum; if anything, I would have thought that the ileum might be 'affected', and certainly the caecum and possibly the remainder of the colon. It is also important to note that in these naturally infected pigs (ST5 is probably the most common subtype in pigs), no signs of invasiveness was detected.

Now, moving on to the proteases, there is a paper out by Arutchelvan Rajamanikam and Suresh K Govind called 'Amoebic forms of Blastocystis spp. - evidence for a pathogenic role'. The study links protease activity to amoebic forms of Blastocystis, which the authors found in symptomatic carriers but not in asymptomatic carriers. Amoeboid forms of Blastocystis being associated with symptomatic infections were described already in 2006 by T C Tan and K G Suresh (whom I believe is identical to S K Govind). While the study is small, investigation of Blastocystis proteases has been going on for a while, and I thought it would be useful to go over some of the literature.

Proteases (or proteinases or peptidases) are enzymes that degrade proteins and therefore useful for instance for the mobilisation and storage of proteins (i.e. 'food'), and the general development and differentiation of cells and tissues, but these enzymes may also be vital for for instance pathogen survival and virulence in the human body (i.e. 'defence' and 'invasion'). Proteases exist in all organisms, i.e. in pro- and eukaryotes + viruses. Proteases are classified on the basis of catalytic mechanism, and five known distinct classes are described: metallo, aspartic, cysteine, serine, and threonine. Being enzymes, proteases digest substrates, can be inhibited, and their functions are dependent on pH and temperature. Hence, proteases can be identified by substrate digestion and by intended inhibition by selective inhibitors (for cystein protease such inhibitors include N-ethylmaleimide, iodoacetamide, and para-hydroxymercuribenzoate for instance).

Turning to the intestinal protozoon Entamoeba for a short while, cysteine proteases have been studied in detail and are among the most likely candidates responsible for the differential pathogenocitiy (virulence factors) of morphologically similar species of Entamoeba: Entamoeba histolytica expresses at least 5 types of cysteine proteases (ACP1, ACP2, ACP3, EhCP5, and EhCP112) and can invade host tissue (leading to amoebiasis), while Entamoeba dispar expresses at least three types of cysteine proteases (EdCP1, EdCP2, and EdCP3) without the ability to invade host tissue. Clinical isolates of E. histolytica release 10- to 1,000-fold more cysteine proteinase activity into the supernatant than E. dispar isolates, although  significant day-to-day variability may be seen. Extracellular cysteine proteases cleave immune secretory IgA (facilitating adhesion of the organism (pathogen) to mucosal surfaces), degrade the extracellular matrix, activate complement, and degrade IgG to circumvent the host immune response. The first evidence of amoebic pathology is local depletion of intestinal mucus and disruption of the epithelial barrier as a result of degradation of the extracellular matrix, which occurs in part from the action of cysteine proteases. More than 80% of patients with amoebiasis develop antibodies against cysteine proteases. Please note that E. histolytica is not consistently invasive; only 10% of E. histolytica infections are believed to be invasive.

Importantly, cysteine proteases are critical to host invasion in a number of parasites. Specific inhibitors block invasion in Trypanosoma cruzi, Plasmodium falciparum, Cryptosporidium parvum, and Toxoplasma gondii.

The main reservoir of Blastocystis ST7 appears to include birds.
Now what do we know about Blastocystis and cysteine proteases? In 2005, Manoj K Puthia from Dr Kevin S W Tan's group in Singapore identified mainly cysteine protease activity in the 'B. hominis B' strain (which is the ST7 strain used in the genome sequencing and annotation study by Denoeud et al. (2011)) and aspartic protease activity in 'B. ratti WR1 strain' (which is a ST4 strain). Lysates and conditioned medium (culture supernatant) from both axenic strain cultures were able to degrade human secretory IgA over 2 h at 37 C, suggesting that Blastocystis actively secrets proteases that - among other things - degrade IgA, thereby potentially evading host mucosal immunity, and enhancing survival opportunities. Along theses lines, in 2006 Sio and colleagues from Tan's group used enzyme digestion (azocasein spectrophotometric assay and gelatin SDS-PAGE analysis), and inhibition assays to characterise proteases from 'B. hominis B' strain. They showed the existence of cysteine proteases with highest activity at neutral pH (the pH of the colon is neutral if even slightly acidic).

Mirza and Tan confirmed that cysteine protease activity was higher in ST7 than in ST4, while inter- and intra-subtype variation in activity was seen over time. In a small study of ST3 positive individuals, Abdel-Hameed and Hassanin were able to detect protease activity in 17/18 symptomatic individuals but only in 2/8 asymptomatic individuals, suggesting intra-subtype differential protease activity. I don't think they tested for protease activity in the culture supernatant.

Cysteine proteases from Blastocystis were reported by Puthia et al. (2008) to enable activation of interleukin 8 (IL-8) gene expression in the human colonic epithelial T84 cell line. IL-8 is a cytokine that attracts PMN and activates monocytes (interestingly, recent results from Olivo-Diaz et al. (2012) suggest that some IL-8 and IL-10 SNPs could change individual susceptibility increasing the relative risk in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in Blastocystis carriers).

Gastrointestinal disorders, such as bacterial enteritis, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease, are reported to be associated with a breakdown of epithelial barrier function which is mainly regulated by 'tight junctions'. There is some experimental evidence that Blastocystis may be able to interfere with this regulation and that it may induce host cell apoptosis without attaching to the gut mucosa. Puthia et al. (2006) explain:
"Pathogen invasion and induction of apoptosis are discrete processes, and there are pathogens that can invade but do not induce apoptosis. It appears that induction of apoptosis of host intestinal cells would not be advantageous to a noninvasive parasite like Blastocystis, as it would result in the loss of colonization sites for the parasite. This unintended induction of host cell apoptosis might be a host response against some parasitic factors like proteases which are necessary for the parasite's own life cycle."
Back to the paper by Rajamanikam and Govind: I cannot remember ever seeing amoeboid stages in Blastocystis cultures myself. But then again, in cultures, Blastocystis can take so many forms (some actually resembling the outline of the head of, well, Mickey Mouse (!) and other cuddly creatures (looks like budding off of new cells), and I wouldn't be able to define strict criteria for stratification of organisms into groups. Since we use Jones' Medium also, I do not suspect that it's a 'medium thing'. What we usually see in well-maintained cultures are small, quite inconspicuous and completely spherical cells. Using the aforementioned digestion assays, Rajamanikam and Govind found elevated protease activity related to patient Blastocystis cultures that had a higher percentage of amoebic forms with intense bands representing higher molecular weight proteases (60-100 kDa); the proteases previously described have been of a size of maximum 75 kDa; however, no attempts were made to characterise the proteases in this study. The authors did not include analysis of conditioned medium, and so we do not know whether these proteases were actually secreted. The proteases identified here may be expressed by the amoebic forms only and so they may be responsible for this particular life cycle stage. Knowledge of substrate specificity might have been useful, and it is also possible to actually determine the protein's amino acid sequence and thereby predict it's structure and function using e.g. mass spectrometry (MS) or Edman degradation of peptides.

Just like Ivan Wawrzyniak and colleagues who recently used SDS-PAGE and MS to characterise proteases secreted by the Blastocystis ST7 (B strain). They were able to match two cysteine proteases identified in the culture supernatant to 2 of 22 proteases predicted by in silico analysis of their ST7 B strain genome data, namely Cathepsin B cysteine protease (CBCP) and a Legumain cysteine protease, which the authors speculated to be potentially involved in pathological processes such as mucin degradation. Incidentally, silencing of CBCP has recently been shown to reduce gut penetration in the helminth Faciola hepatica.

Back in 2007, Jésus Serrano-Luna and colleagues studied proteases from pathogenic Naegleria fowleri (causing primary amoebic meningoencephalitis) and non-pathogenic Naegleria gruberi. They observed cysteine proteases in both species, but more proteases in the N. gruberi than in N. fowleri. Protease activity appeared to depend on pH and temp, and moreover, protease patterns for crude extracts and conditioned medium differed

It's probably fair to assume that the expression of potential virulence genes such as genes encoding cysteine proteases may depend on a multiple factors, most of which are yet to be identified, or at least, confirmed. For now, the marked differences in cysteine protease production/expression between and within Blastocystis STs together with experimental evidence highlighting a variation in pathophysiological effects and immunological responses to Blastocystis subtypes isolated from symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers, could be seen as supporting the hypothesis that cysteine proteases may be essential virulence factors responsible for variation in disease symptoms observed across carriers. For more on this, why not look up this paper (free in PubMed Central). However, it is also tempting to think that differential protease expression is merely reflecting various stages in the parasite's life cycle. Things would have been so much easier if we had access to a strain in culture capable of invasion or isolated from an outbreak of Blastocystis infection. But, contrary to parasites of 'acknowledged clinical significance', we do not have such a strain, and neither invasion nor outbreaks of Blastocystis have been reported of, at least not convincingly, I think; please correct me, if I'm wrong. I think it's time for a coffee...


Abdel-Hameed DM, & Hassanin OM (2011). Proteaese activity of Blastocystis hominis subtype 3 in symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. Parasitology Research, 109 (2), 321-7 PMID: 21279383

Denoeud F, Roussel M, Noel B, Wawrzyniak I, Da Silva C, Diogon M, Viscogliosi E, Brochier-Armanet C, Couloux A, Poulain J, Segurens B, Anthouard V, Texier C, Blot N, Poirier P, Ng GC, Tan KS, Artiguenave F, Jaillon O, Aury JM, Delbac F, Wincker P, Vivarès CP, & El Alaoui H (2011). Genome sequence of the stramenopile Blastocystis, a human anaerobic parasite. Genome Biology, 12 (3) PMID: 21439036 

Fayer R, Elsasser T, Gould R, Solano G, Urban J Jr, & Santin M (2014). Blastocystis tropism in the pig intestine. Parasitology Research PMID: 24535732

McGonigle L, Mousley A, Marks NJ, Brennan GP, Dalton JP, Spithill TW, Day TA, & Maule AG (2008). The silencing of cysteine proteases in Fasciola hepatica newly excysted juveniles using RNA interference reduces gut penetration. International Journal for Parasitology, 38 (2), 149-55 PMID: 18048044

Mirza H, & Tan KS (2009). Blastocystis exhibits inter- and intra-subtype variation in cysteine protease activity. Parasitology Research, 104 (2), 355-61 PMID: 18846388

Olivo-Diaz A, Romero-Valdovinos M, Gudiño-Ramirez A, Reyes-Gordillo J, Jimenez-Gonzalez DE, Ramirez-Miranda ME, Martinez-Flores WA, Martinez-Hernandez F, Flisser A, & Maravilla P (2012). Findings related to IL-8 and IL-10 gene polymorphisms in a Mexican patient population with irritable bowel syndrome infected with Blastocystis. Parasitology Research, 111 (1), 487-91 PMID: 22287022

Poirier P, Wawrzyniak I, Vivarès CP, Delbac F, & El Alaoui H (2012). New insights into Blastocystis spp.: a potential link with irritable bowel syndrome. PLoS Pathogens, 8 (3) PMID: 22438803

Puthia MK, Vaithilingam A, Lu J, & Tan KS (2005). Degradation of human secretory immunoglobulin A by Blastocystis. Parasitology Research, 97 (5), 386-9 PMID: 16151742

Puthia MK, Sio SW, Lu J, & Tan KS (2006). Blastocystis ratti induces contact-independent apoptosis, F-actin rearrangement, and barrier function disruption in IEC-6 cells. Infection and Immunity, 74 (7), 4114-23 PMID: 16790785

Que X, & Reed S L (2000). Cysteine Proteinases and the Pathogenesis of Amebiasis. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 13 (2), 196-206 DOI: 10.1128/CMR.13.2.196-206.2000

Rajamanikam A, & Govind SK (2013). Amoebic forms of Blastocystis spp. - evidence for a pathogenic role. Parasites & Vectors, 6 (1) PMID: 24499467

Serrano-Luna J, Cervantes-Sandoval I, Tsutsumi V, & Shibayama M (2007). A biochemical comparison of proteases from pathogenic Naegleria fowleri and non-pathogenic Naegleria gruberi. The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology, 54 (5), 411-7 PMID: 17910685

Sio SW, Puthia MK, Lee AS, Lu J, & Tan KS (2006). Protease activity of Blastocystis hominis. Parasitology Research, 99 (2), 126-30 PMID: 16518611 

Wawrzyniak I, Texier C, Poirier P, Viscogliosi E, Tan KS, Delbac F, & El Alaoui H (2012). Characterization of two cysteine proteases secreted by Blastocystis ST7, a human intestinal parasite. Parasitology International, 61 (3), 437-42 PMID: 22402106 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

This Month in Blastocystis Research (NOV 2013)

Few commercial kits are available for detection of Blastocystis. One of them is the ParaFlorB kit developed by Boulder Diagnostics which uses a monoclonal antibody to detect Blastocystis-specific antigen. We are currently testing this kit in our lab, and I hope to be able to get back with a summary of our experience once the evaluation has finished. Another kit is the EasyScreenTM Enteric Parasite Detection Kit (Genetic Signatures, Sydney, Australia), which was recently evaluated by some of my Australian colleagues (Stark et al., 2013). In this case, Blastocystis has been included in a panel testing for 5 parasitic genera, the other ones being Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba, and Dientamoeba, which makes it interesting in a clinical microbiology context, - at least for research purposes.

It can certainly be discussed whether both Dientamoeba and Blastocystis should be part of routine screening for single-celled intestinal parasites. For some years, we have included Dientamoeba in a PCR panel also consisting of Cryptosporidium, Giardia and Entamoeba, but we are about to remove it from this panel. This does not mean that we will not be testing for Dientamoeba; it only means that we will offer testing for Dientamoeba as a separate analysis, in line with our tests for Blastocystis.

According to the study, the kit performs quite well with the only major impediment being the fact that it does not enable differentiation between pathogenic and apathogenic species of Entamoeba; another drawback is the fact that it does not enable detection of the more rare protozoa, such as Cystoisospora and Cyclospora (and I would also mention microsporidia and maybe Balantidium coli). Also, I might be a little worried that the kit will not pick up all species and genotypes of Cryptosporidium, - in fact little was done to challenge the kit in the evaluation. Regarding Cryptosporidium, only C. hominis and C. parvum were tested. In Sweden, at least 10% of all human cryptosporidiosis is due to non-hominis and non-parvum species and genotypes. This is an observation that has led me to revisit our own Cryptosporidium real-time PCR. With help from Welsh and Swedish colleagues I managed to establish quite a broad panel of different Cryptosporidium species and genotypes, and much to my surprise, our 'old' real-time PCR failed to detect the vast majority of these... which means that this Cryptosporidium PCR was far from genus-specific. So, I set out to design a genus-specific PCR which is now being integrated with our Giardia real-time PCR in a duplex assay.
Anyway, similar to Cryptosporidium, many species of Blastocystis - the so-called subtypes - can colonise and infect humans. In the evaluation of the EasyScreen kit, only subtypes 1, 3, and 4 were used to challenge the kit, and so, it is not known whether the kit also detects other subtypes found in humans (ST2, ST5, ST6, ST7, ST8, and ST9).

For those interested in these diagnostic multiplex systems, please also visit a previous blog post.

Anastasios Tsaousis and his Canadian group in Halifax had a paper out just now in Eukaryotic Cell expanding their work on the evolution of the cytosolic iron/sulfur cluster assembly machinery in Blastocystis spp. and other microbial eukaryotes. This type of work is crucial for obtaining a deeper understanding of the metabolism of Blastocystis and to understand how it has evolved and how it potentially differs from other eukaryotes.  Apparently, Iron-sulfur cluster-containing proteins and their biosynthetic machinery in single-celled parasites are remarkably different from those in their mammalian hosts and they therefore represent a potentially relevant target for the development of novel chemotherapeutic and prophylactic agents against parasite infections. For those interested in iron-sulfur clusters in protists in general, a review was published in Advances in Parasitology some weeks ago (please see cited literature).

There is paper out on fasciolosis and co-infections, including Blastocystis, and in that paper it appears that nitazoxanide may be able to eradicate Blastocystis. However, only three persons were treated, and I'm not sure that the diagnostic tests used would have picked up light infections of Blastocystis.

Speaking of treatment: Another paper has appeared from the highly productive team in Sydney, - this time on treatment failure in patients with chronic Blastocystis infection and first-authored by Ms Tamalee Roberts, whom I was so fortunate to spend some time with during the recent congress in Copenhagen. The paper is a little difficult to follow, particularly since nothing is mentioned in the Materials and Methods section on the choice of treatment and treatment strategies in general, but then again, the paper is based on a string of individual (groups of) cases with different kinds of treatment approaches and various backgrounds. I really like the fact that the authors are looking at multiple cases and also that have included a few patients receiving the Triple Therapy (nitazoxanide, furazolidone, secnidazole), which appears to have no major clinical efficacy. The paper also confirms the uselessness of metronidazole when it comes to eradicating Blastocystis. What I could have wished for is that the authors had been able to pursue the microbiological effect of treatment in each of the cases; only in some cases do we get to know about clearance/persistence of Blastocystis. Also, here at the SSI we sometimes wonder, whether persistence of symptoms after treatment may in some cases reflect adverse effects of the treatment (including perturbation of intestinal flora), in which case even randomised controlled treatment (RCT) studies are difficult to design and interpret, unless very clear case definitions and inclusion criteria are available. Hence, for RCT studies I think it is pertinent only to include patients with very similar symptoms (and possibly microbiomes!); given the prevalence of Blastocystis, this shouldn't be too difficult.

Regarding my most recent blog post, I have noticed that it caused quite a stir! I did anticipate some kerfuffle though. But fact is that we have gradually been able to collect so much data from different, independent studies, and the trend appears clear. We now need to investigate what this means, and whether this is something that can be exploited.

There will be no DEC 2013 version of 'This Month in Blastocystis Research' - instead I plan on doing a 'Blastocystis Highlights in 2013' post in line with last year's. Suggestions for significant papers/contributions are welcome!

Cited literature:

Ali V, & Nozaki T (2013). Iron-sulphur clusters, their biosynthesis, and biological functions in protozoan parasites. Advances in Parasitology, 83, 1-92 PMID: 23876871

Roberts T, Ellis J, Harkness J, Marriott D, & Stark D (2013). Treatment failure in patients with chronic Blastocystis infection. Journal of Medical Microbiology PMID: 24243286

Stark D, Roberts T, Ellis JT, Marriott D, & Harkness J (2013). Evaluation of the EasyScreen™ Enteric Parasite Detection Kit for the detection of Blastocystis spp., Cryptosporidium spp., Dientamoeba fragilis, Entamoeba complex, and Giardia intestinalis from clinical stool samples. Diagnostic Microbiology and Infectious Disease PMID: 24286625

Tsaousis AD, Gentekaki E, Eme L, Gaston D, & Roger AJ (2013). Evolution of the Cytosolic Iron/Sulfur cluster Assembly machinery in Blastocystis sp. and other microbial eukaryotes. Eukaryotic Cell PMID: 24243793
Zumaquero-Ríos JL, Sarracent-Pérez J, Rojas-García R, Rojas-Rivero L, Martínez-Tovilla Y, Valero MA, & Mas-Coma S (2013). Fascioliasis and intestinal parasitoses affecting schoolchildren in atlixco, puebla state, Mexico: epidemiology and treatment with nitazoxanide. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 7 (11) PMID: 24278492

Thursday, March 21, 2013

LUMINEX xMAP Technology in Parasite Diagnostics

Over the past few years nucleic acid based methods have revolutionised parasite diagnostics in modern clinical microbiology (CM) labs. Real-time PCR is really gaining a foothold in CM labs, but despite the opportunity for plexing, mostly only up to 6 DNA targets can be included in each assay (due to the number of available channels).

LUMINEX xMAP technology used for detection of specific nucleic acids (Dunbar, 2006) bypasses this limit, and up to 100 DNA targets can be included in one single assay in a 96-well plate format. You can read about the technology here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

XVII Seminar on Amoebiasis, Mérida, Mexico, March 2013


The XVII Seminar on Amebiasis will take place in Mérida, México, March 1-5, 2013. For futher information, please go here.

(Artwork by Jan Voss ("Parasites"))

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Do I Get Diagnosed Correctly?

I can tell especially from Facebook discussions that people across the globe wanting to know about their "Blastocystis status" are worried that they are receiving false-negative results from their stool tests, and that many Blastocystis infections go unnoticed. And I think I should maybe try and say a few things on this (please also see a recent blog post on diagnosis, - you'll find it here). I might try and simplify things a bit in order not to make the post too long.

Below, you'll find a tentative representation of the life cycle of Blastocystis. It is taken from CDC, from the otherwise quite useful website DPDx - Laboratory Identification of Parasites of Public Health Concern.

Proposed life cycle of Blastocystis.
I don't know how useful it is, but what's important here is the fact that we accidentally ingest cysts of Blastocystis, and we shed cysts that can be passed on to other hosts. The cyst stage is the transmissible stage, and the way the parasite can survive outside the body; we don't know for how long cysts can survive and remain infective. In our intestine and triggered by various stimuli, the cysts excyst, transiting to the non-cyst form, which could be called the trophozoite / "troph" stage, or to use a Blastocystis-specific term, the "vacuolar stage" (many stages have been described for Blastocystis, but I might want to save that for later!). This is possibly the stage in the life cycle where the parasite settles, thrives, multiplies, etc. You can see a picture of vacuolar stages in this blog post. Many protozoa follow this simple life cycle pattern, among them Giardia and most species of Entamoeba. If the stool is diarrhoeic and you are infected by any one or more of these parasites, it may be so that only trophozoites, and, importantly, no cysts, are shed! This has something to do with reduced intestinal transit time and, maybe more importantly, the failure of the colon to resorb water from the stool which means that the trophozoites do not get the usual encystation stimuli. Importantly, trophozoites are in general non-infectious.

There is documentation that once colonised with Blastocystis, you may well carry it with you for years on end, and as already mentioned a couple of times, no single drug or no particular diet appears to be capable of eradicating Blastocystis - this is supported by the notion that Blastocystis prevalence seems to be increasing by age, although spontaneous resolution may not be uncommon, - we don't know much about this. Now, although day-to-day variation in the shedding of Blastocystis has been described, it is my general impression that colonised individuals may shed the parasite with each stool passage, and well-trained lab technicians/parasitologists will be able to pick up Blastocystis in a direct smear (both cysts and trophs may be seen). To do a direct smear you simply just mix a very small portion of the stool with saline or PBS on a slide, put a cover slip over it and do conventional light microscopy at x200 (screening) or x400 (verification). Very light infections may be difficult to detect this way, and if you don't have all the time in the world, a direct smear may not be the first choice.

The "king" of parasitological methods, however, is microscopy of faecal concentrates (Formol Ethyl Acetate Concentration Technique and any variant thereof), which is remarkable in its ability to detect a huge variety of parasites. Especially cysts of protozoa (e.g. Giardia and Entamoeba) and eggs of helminths (e.g. tapeworm, whipworm and roundworm) concentrate well and are identified to genus and species levels based on morphology. The method is not as sensitive as DNA-based methods such as PCR, but as I said, has the advantage of picking up a multitude of parasites and therefore good for screening; PCR methods are targeted towards particular species (types) of parasites. A drawback of the concentration method is that it doesn't allow you to detect trophzoites (i.e. the fragile, non-cystic stage), and, as mentioned, diarrhoeic samples may contain only trophozoites and no cysts...

In many countries it is very common for people to be infected by both protozoa and helminths, and in those countries microscopy of faecal concentrates is a relevant diagnostic choice. In Denmark and many Western European countries, the level of parasitism is higher than might be expected (from a hygiene and food safety point of view) but due to only few parasitic species. Paradoxically, the intestinal parasites that people harbour in this part of the world are parasites that do not concentrate well. They are mainly:

1) Blastocystis
2) Dientamoeba fragilis
3) Pinworm (Enterobius vermicularis)

Only troph stages have been described for Dientamoeba fragilis and it may be transmitted by a vector, such as pinworm (look up paper by Röser et al. in the list below for more information); this mode of transmission is not unprecedented (e.g. Histomonas transmission by Heterakis). Eggs of pinworm may be present in faeces, but a more sensitive method is the tape test.

Now, Blastocystis often disintegrates in the faecal concentration process, and while you might be lucky to pick up the parasite in a faecal concentrate, you shouldn't count on it, and hence the method is not reliable, unless the faecal sample was fixed immediatley after being voided. This is key, and also why fixatives are used for the collection of stool samples in many parts of the world - to enable the detection of fragile stages of parasites. There are many fixatives, e.g. SAF (sodium acetate-acetic formalin), PVA (poly-vinyl alcohol) and even plain formalin will do the trick if it's just a matter of preserving the parasite in the sample. If SAF or PVA is used, this allows you to do permanently stained smears of faecal concentrates, and you will be able to pick up not only cysts of protozoa, but even trophozoites. Trichrome and iron-haematoxylin staining are common methods and are sensitive but very time-consuming and may be related to some health hazards as well due to the use of toxic agents. But this way of detecting parasites is like good craftmanship - it requires a lot of expertise, but then you get to look at fascinating structures with intriguing nuclear and cytoplasmatic diagnostic hallmarks. Truly, morphological diagnosis of parasites is an art form! Notably, samples preserved in such fixatives may be useless for molecular analyses.

Iron-haematoxylin stain of trophozoites of Entamoeba coli
(note the "dirty" cytoplasm characteristic of E. coli).

At our lab we supplement microscopy of faecal concentrates with DNA-based detection of parasites. For some clinically significant parasites, we do a routine screen by PCR, since this is more sensitive than microscopy of faecal concentrates and because this is a semi-automated analysis that involves only DNA extraction, PCR and test result interpretation, which are all things that can be taught easily. Major drawbacks of diagnostic PCR is that you cannot really distinguish between viable (patent infection) and dead organisms (infection resolving, e.g. due to treatment). This is why, in the case of Blastocystis, you may want to do a stool culture as well (at least in post-treatment situations), since only viable cells will be able to grow, obviously.

Two diagnostic real-time PCR analyses have been published, one using CYBR Green and one using a TaqMan probe.

Now, it certainly differs from lab to lab as to which method is used for Blastocystis detection. Some labs apparently apply thresholds for number of parasites detected per visual field, and only score a sample positive if more than 5 parasites per visual field have been detected. I see no support for choosing a threshold, since 1) we do not know whether any Blastocystis-related symptoms are exacerbated by parasite intensity, 2) the number of parasites detected in a faecal concentrate may depend on so many things which have nothing to do with the observer (fluctuations in shedding for instance), and 3) the pathogenic potential of Blastocystis may very well depend on subtype.

If Blastocystis was formally acknolwedged as a pathogen, like Giardia, standardisation of methods would have happened by now. Meanwhile, we can only advocate for the use of PCR and culture if accurate diagnosis of Blastocystis is warranted, while permanent staining of fixed faecal samples constitutes a very good alternative in situations where PCR is not an option.

I have the impression that some labs do DNA-based detection of microbes, including protozoa, and that a result such as "taxonomy unknown" is not uncommon. I don't know how these labs have designed their molecular assays, and therefore I cannot comment on the diagnostic quality and relevance of those tests... it also depends on whether labs do any additional testing as well, such as the more traditional parasitological tests. However, we do know that there is a lot of organisms in our intestine, for which no data are available in GenBank, which is why it is sometimes impossible to assign a name to e.g. non-human eukaryotic DNA amplified from a stool sample.

* More than 1 billion people may harbour Blastocystis.
* Blastocystis is found mainly in the large intestine.
* 95% of humans colonised by Blastocystis have one of the following subtypes: ST1, ST2, ST3, ST4.
* DNA-based detection combined with culture ensures accurate detection of Blastocystis in stool samples and enables subtyping and viability assessment.

Further reading:

Poirier P, Wawrzyniak I, Albert A, El Alaoui H, Delbac F, & Livrelli V (2011). Development and evaluation of a real-time PCR assay for detection and quantification of blastocystis parasites in human stool samples: prospective study of patients with hematological malignancies. Journal of clinical microbiology, 49 (3), 975-83 PMID: 21177897

Röser D, Nejsum P, Carlsgart AJ, Nielsen HV, & Stensvold CR (2013). DNA of Dientamoeba fragilis detected within surface-sterilized eggs of Enterobius vermicularis. Experimental parasitology, 133 (1), 57-61 PMID: 23116599

Scanlan PD, & Marchesi JR (2008). Micro-eukaryotic diversity of the human distal gut microbiota: qualitative assessment using culture-dependent and -independent analysis of faeces. The ISME journal, 2 (12), 1183-93 PMID: 18670396

Stensvold CR, Ahmed UN, Andersen LO, & Nielsen HV (2012). Development and Evaluation of a Genus-Specific, Probe-Based, Internal-Process-Controlled Real-Time PCR Assay for Sensitive and Specific Detection of Blastocystis spp. Journal of clinical microbiology, 50 (6), 1847-51 PMID: 22422846

Stensvold CR, Arendrup MC, Jespersgaard C, Mølbak K, & Nielsen HV (2007). Detecting Blastocystis using parasitologic and DNA-based methods: a comparative study. Diagnostic microbiology and infectious disease, 59 (3), 303-7 PMID: 17913433

Stensvold CR, & Nielsen HV (2012). Comparison of microscopy and PCR for detection of intestinal parasites in Danish patients supports an incentive for molecular screening platforms. Journal of clinical microbiology, 50 (2), 540-1 PMID: 22090410