Scientists have discovered that the microscopic bug – known as Toxoplasma gondii – can trigger inflammation and the formation of cysts in the prostate gland.
Chronic inflammation is known to double the risk of developing the cancer. Until now, most researchers thought inflammation was caused by bacteria or viral infections that damage the tissue in the prostate.
But the new study, carried out only on mice, suggests for the first time that the bug, which is thought to infect a third of the population in the UK, could also be responsible. The parasite is carried by cats and is shed in their faeces.
Humans can then be infected by drinking contaminated water, eating unwashed vegetables or handling cat litter trays.
More than 46,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year in the UK.
Dr Travis Jerde, a professor of toxicology at Indiana University and one of the study authors, said: ‘No one should be getting rid of their cat because of this study, but precautions should be taken when working or playing in areas where cats may have gone to the bathroom – like a garden or sandbox.’
The latest research, published in the journal The Prostate, examined the impact of Toxoplasma gondii and found that cysts were formed for at least 60 days after infection, leading to “sunstantial and chronic” inflammation.
Bill Sullivan, co-author of the Indiana Universiry study, warned: “If Toxoplasma is also found to trigger chronic inflammation in the human prostate, the findings take on added significance, given the prevelance of the parasite in the human population.”