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Nibbled to Death: U.Va. Researchers Discover New Way Human Cells Are Killed

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Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine studying a potentially deadly parasitic infection have discovered a previously unknown way that human cells are killed, with the parasitic amoeba essentially nibbling cells to death – as a piranha might attack its prey.

Until now, researchers had assumed that the amoeba, Entamoeba histolytica, killed and then engulfed and consumed human cells. But the U.Va. research upends that idea, suggesting instead that the amoeba takes small bites of the cell until the cell dies – and then the amoeba loses all interest in eating the corpse.

“This is the first demonstration that nibbling can serve as a way to kill other cells,” U.Va. researcher Katherine S. Ralston said. “The findings suggest that amoebae might invade and destroy host intestinal tissue by nibbling alive the cells that line the gut. Intriguingly, there are hints that organisms can also nibble. Perhaps this process is more common than we realize, and it is taken to the extreme in the case of the amoebae, which use nibbling to kill.”

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