W&M biologist's mouth worm becomes viral sensation

Buddy the mouth worm may have died in 2012, but today the little guy is a YouTube star.

The wriggler that a biology professor at the College of William and Mary extracted one dark December night from the lining of his own lip lives on as a viral sensation, the subject of a wildly popular short promotional video for an Animal Planet show called “Monsters Inside Me.”

That episode aired last fall. But, as of Wednesday, its three-minute preview entitled “Watch This Biologist Remove a Parasite From His Own Mouth” had logged nearly 5.13 million views.

And counting.

“Just since we’ve been talking, like, 200 more people have watched it,” Jon Allen said in a recent interview from Williamsburg. “Who are those 200 people? I have no idea. Like, why are they watching? I don’t understand.”

Allen studies nematodes and parasites for a living, so he’s used to observing oddities in the natural world.

For non-invertebrate biologists, though, the fascination with the personal parasite that Allen’s wife nicknamed Buddy seems rather clear.

In fact, it seems rather clear to Allen’s wife, who, in the promo, describes the moment when she stood in a bathroom in the middle of the night training a flashlight on her husband while he dug around in his mouth with a bloody set of #5 super-fine-tip tweezers.

"He said, ‘I got something,’ ” Margaret Pizer, a science writer, recounts in the video. “And you could see that he was holding the end of something in the forceps. So I’m definitely thinking, ‘What am I doing here holding a flashlight so that you can pull some creature out of your cheek?’ This is like ‘Alien’ or something.”

“It was wriggling around,” Allen says with a smile in the video. “It was incredibly surreal.”

Ah, the horror. And the humor.

Buddy was a true rarity, not because of what he was — a Gongylonema pulchrum — but because of his host.

Known as gullet worms, G. pulchrums are commonplace in livestock — cattle are pretty much riddled with them — but incredibly rare in humans, who make much less hospitable hosts.

In fact, Allen was only the 13th person in the U.S. ever proven to have a G. pulchrum. Today, he’s still only the 57th human on the planet so diagnosed.

But he and a molecular cell biologist who helped him study Buddy and how he inhabited Allen’s body for a bit believe such infections could be widely underdiagnosed.

Allen's original extraction video »

In fact, back in 2012 when Buddy was still just a working hypothesis based on months of strange symptoms and Allen’s own research, Allen took his suspicions, his considerable scientific expertise and his Ph.D. plus reams of data he’d collected on the G. pulchrum and presented them to an oral surgeon for a diagnosis. And even Allen wasn’t believed.

The doctor said he simply didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in his mouth.

So it was up to Allen to come up with some hard evidence — nearly a wriggling inch of it.

After that, Allen enlisted biologist Aurora Kerscher, who studies small-scale nematodes at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, to partner on finding out more about Buddy and where he came from.

They secured a $10,000 collaborative grant from EVMS and went to work.

They theorized Allen could have picked up a worm egg from water tainted by insects that serve as intermediate hosts for G. pulchrum.

But water samples taken from various places where Allen could have been infected — well water in Maine, for instance — turned up a few bug parts but no worm eggs.

They eventually published a paper on their findings in the “American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene” in October 2013.

Their work was also written up in news reports, including the Daily Press, and soon they were hearing from members of the public who suspected they had their own little Buddies but were being discounted by their doctors, too.

“That’s what we heard from a lot of people who were reaching out to us: ‘I heard your story and the doctor and my oral surgeon think I’m crazy,’ ” said Kerscher. “ ‘I know I’m not crazy.’ ”

When producers at “Monsters Inside Me” approached about filming their story, Allen and Kerscher jumped on board. They and Pizer were interviewed for the segment, and actors re-enacted key moments.

“As you could predict,” Allen said, “they were keen to over-dramatize the situation.”

According to Kerscher, producers said they were drawn to its relatively upbeat message.

“They said this is one of the few stories in their show … where it was actually a good ending,” Kerscher said. “A lot of the people who get these (other) parasites, they’re really harmed. It’s like a major life-turning issue.”

G. pulchrums could easily be overlooked in people because they’re not making the human host sick and not reproducing wildly, she said.

“I think maybe a lot more people probably are infected with it than it’s realized,” Kerscher said.

Their advice to those who suspect they might have a gullet worm is to contact the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.

Kerscher and Allen do read the occasional scientific paper about other rare human cases, like one that popped up in Georgia after Allen’s diagnosis. Last year, they said, researchers in China published a paper about using endoscopy, or tiny fiber-optic cameras, to look for gullet worm infections in people.

“They were able to see into their esophagus and see these worms crawling around in there,” Allen said.

That could be a “really cool” research collaboration, he said — but not for him. Buddy was a blip on his research radar, and Allen has since returned to his comfort zone, studying crown-of-thorn seastars in Australia — large, venomous coral-eating starfish.

“I sort of have reverted back to my invertebrate biologist self,” Allen said. “There’s a huge diversity of animals that live in all different kinds of places — in the ocean, in terrestrial habitats, inside of people — and we don’t have a great understanding of any of them.”

Kerscher is back in the business of looking for novel diagnostics and therapeutics for prostate cancer. To that end, she studies a harmless nonparasitic worm call C. elegans.

“It’s a really beautiful genetic model for understanding different cellular pathways and has been really insightful for understanding different factors in cancer progression,” Kerscher said.

It’s also a far cry from Buddy, whose viral popularity has provided a sort of reflected glory.

“I told my friends I’d like to be well-known for curing cancer,” Kerscher said with a laugh. “But it’s all good science.”

Both biologists still use Buddy as a teaching tool in their respective classrooms.

“To try to emphasize animal diversity and parasitic diversity and strange things that happen that are unexpected,” Allen said. “And when your professor has strange things happen to them, then I think it hammers that point home a little bit more.”

“We take it with humor,” Kerscher said. “And we kind of use it as an example of always having an inquisitive mind. And that a lot of the new discoveries are right under your nose.”

Contact Dietrich at 757-247-7892 or tdietrich@dailypress.com. Follow on Twitter at DP_Dietrich

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