Sunday, January 08, 2006


In a previous post introducing the Cumbernauld Institute of Parasitology I mentioned that we have several volunteers who help us out with our experiments and discoveries. Ravel is one of the happy band, and deserves a special mention here because he is somewhat of a unique discovery himself.

Ravel came to us about two years ago, whilst touring through the UK on holiday. He spoke very little English, but we managed to ascertain by going through his travel documents that he came from Bulgaria and was on a 3 month visa. He also carried a letter from a former employer asking that someone take pity on the young man and offer him employment. Why Ravel could not get a job in Bulgaria was not clear. At the time we were a little short staffed, so when Ravel one morning walked into our reception and showed Denise (our receptionist) the letter, a lightbulb above my head lit up.

Ravel as 'Henri the Clown' at our Christmas Fancy dress party in 2005

At first Ravel was involved in only light work around the place - tidying up, making coffee, tasting the new medicinal compounds for flavour satisfaction, etc. But then one day, about two months into his visit, a curious turn of events involving the handsome yet modest chap led to a dramatic change in our working practices.

I was sitting in the lounge area reading the latest copy of Parasites Weekly (vol 1, issue 3) when Ravel shouted for help. Just five minutes before he had complained of being hungry, and had wandered off looking for food. I followed his broken english cries towards his bedroom where I found Ravel rolling around on his bed, clutching his stomach and uttering who knows what kind of expletives in Bulgarian. Upon seeinge me he pointed towards his mouth, and my first reaction was that he was having another bad turn to one of the drugs. But then he pointed towards the empty jar on the table which bore the label 'tapeworm cysts'. I recognised the jar as one in which we kept live specimens, and I realised at once that Ravel must have ingested several dozen of them as the jar was often kept in the food fridge. His poor English must have let him down again.

Now what you might not know about tapeworm cysts is that when ingested they transform into adult tapeworms that adhere by the means of suckers to the inside of your gut. (Footnote:It is generally better to ingest the cysts rather than the eggs of the tapeworm since the eggs when ingested will turn into cysts and become disseminated throughout your internal organs). The pain that Ravel was feeling was probably due to drinking the medium in whcih the cysts were contained rather than the transformation process which would have taken longer. So I knew that he was in no immediate danger. I also knew that we had a unique opportunity on our hands that no self-respecting experimental parasitologist would refuse.

Here, we had a human whose first exposure to the parasite was exactly known. We could time everything that happened subsequently with an accuracy of just a few minutes. Normally, such accuracy is only afforded when working with experimental models where the innoculation is precisely recorded (It is, in fact, entirely unethical to experimentally infect humans, particularly without their consent).

Even whilst I was contemplating what to do with this opportunity I could see that Ravel's pain was subsiding. After just under an hour he managed to lift himself from the bed and walk over to me. I placed my hands on his shoulders and asked to to wait another few minutes. This was because I had just ordered a batch of a new drug to be made up and it was still cooking in the incubator. I had decided to try out the drug (a Phase I trial, in effect) on Ravel instead of the herd of sheep that were grazing in the field where we were currently encamped. The time and cost savings were potentially enormous, and if Ravel came through without any scars I could take the the trial to Phase II on our other volunteers.

Ravel readily gulped down the thick black liquid despite the fact that it smelt a bit like old fish (mainly because rotten fish was a main ingredient). He licked his lips, smiled and sat down. I started my stopwatch and sat poised at my desk ready to take notes.

Minutes passed, then hours. Nothing happened. Ravel burped a few times but never once excused himself to use the toilet. The drug should have expelled the parasites within half an hour, but clearly no such thing had happened. The trial was a failure and the drug was abandoned. But it did mean 1) that we had wasted only a little time and money and b) that Ravel had an intact population of tapeworms. He therefore was ideally placed to become our first permanent tapeworm host, and has been the subject of many trials of new compounds. He has also donated over 200 pints of his own blood for our immunology experiments. His poor English notwithstanding he has never complained, and always consents to the experiments with tears of joy and his favourite Bulgarian phrase. I'm not sure what it means, but it sounds something like 'Snoufgyhy Mr Crumbul no Hgyuhu me, pleesh'

1 comment:

hermione2001ie said...

I love your stuff! Whoever you are!