Science/Tech

Biologist Pulls Worm From Cheek: John D. Allen Removes Own Parasite With Forceps

worm
Biologist Jonathan D. Allen still doesn't know how the worm got into his cheek. NIAID, CC BY 2.0

Biologist Jonathan D. Allen knows what it means to bring work home. The 36-year-old assistant professor recently made headlines with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Tropical Medicine, in which he chronicles his experience hosting a parasitic worm in his cheek. His firsthand account describes how the one-inch intruder spent months traveling between his cheeks and lips before he finally pulled it out with a pair of forceps.

The upsetting tale began in Dec. 2012. Allen, who teaches biology at the College of William and Mary, noticed that something was wrong during one of his lectures. "It was in the mucosa [the fleshy part of the cheek]. The first three months, it was in the back of the throat in places I could touch with my tongue," he said, speaking to The Huffington Post. "I could feel it with my tongue but not my finger. It wasn't until it moved to my lip that I could see it and was willing to talk to someone other than my wife and confess this was in my body."

Unfortunately, the experts he consulted proved to be of little help. Allen’s dentist referred him to an oral surgeon, who told him that the bump he felt was a normal discoloration. His ailment, he said, was nothing out of the ordinary. “I said, ‘Look, I study these things for a living,’” Allan told reporters. “And he said, ‘Well, I look in people’s mouths every day.’”

The next morning, Allan decided to take care of the parasite himself. Using a pair surgery-grade forceps, he set to work extracting the worm by scraping the lining of his mouth. Eventually, the freeloader came coiling out. “It was writhing,” he wrote in the paper.

Genetic analysis revealed that the worm was a Gongylonema Pulchruma — a member of the nematode family typically found in livestock. After some additional research, Allen found that only about 50 similar infections were described in scientific literature, and that his would be the 13th case recorded in the United States. To this day, he still doesn’t know how he acquired the parasite.

“It’s the only paper I’ve ever published in a medical journal,” Allen told Wired. “It’s a fun story to tell and it grosses my students out. But also I’m at a college where we train a lot of pre-med students. We always debate what they need to know, how to give them the ability to think critically and to see things that are not normal.”

 

Source: Allen JD, Esquela-Kerscher A. Gongylonema pulchrum Infection in a Resident of Williamsburg, Virginia, Verified by Genetic Analysis. Journal of Tropical Medicine. 2013.

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