Teratoma–When You Can Find Teeth and Hair Inside Your Body (As Seen on House MD)

This is part of our House MD Project series.

On episode 20 of season 7, named “Changes”, a lottery winner called Cyrus Harry collapses and his leg

becomes paralyzed. In the hospital he experiences a seizure. Later tumors are found in various places in his body. After giving him growth factor, which is supposed to help tumors grow, they actually shrink. This doesn’t prevent him from having a multi-organ failure. The explanation for everything is a teratoma, against which the body created antibodies. The antibodies attacked his organs. Why? Read on to understand…


Photo by Fox

Danger level: Medium

What is it?

A teratoma (coming from the Greek word “teraton”, which means “monster”) is a tumor that contains tissues of other body organs in it.

Who gets it?

Teratomas can come in many forms: some can form in the testicle or ovary, while others may occur somewhere else in the body. This article deals with teratomas that are found outside the testicle and ovary, specifically in the mediastinum (the chest area).

They can occur in men or women. The typical age when they show up is 20-40.

What causes it?

When we are in the womb, still developing, our tissues and organs develop from entities called germ layers. All in all, there are 3 of them: the endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm. Each of those gives rise to different parts of the body. For example, the mesoderm develops into our muscles, skeleton, skin, heart, and other things.

A teratoma is a tumor, which, unlike our normal organs, is derived from more than one of those germ layers (usually all 3). This means, basically, that it can contain all sorts of organs within it. Examples of tissues found inside a teratoma include hair, teeth, fat, skin, muscle, and others.

An example of a teratoma can be seen here (containing hair, a tooth, and some other icky stuff… warning: If you’re easily grossed out by graphic images, do not follow the link) – photo by Ed Uthman).

How does it feel?

Usually teratomas in the mediastinum are benign, and they are commonly not felt at all. If there are any symptoms, they have to do with the tumor pressing on organs inside the chest, causing things such as chest pain, cough, difficulty breathing, and the like. One symptom that’s unique to the condition is coughing up hair. All in all, due to the lack of symptoms, teratomas in the chest are usually discovered by chest x-rays when trying to find other things.

It’s important to note that teratomas in other places (like the testicle or ovary) behave differently and may be malignant (meaning they can spread within the body).

How is it discovered?

As mentioned above, teratomas are usually discovered by an image, either an x-ray, a CT, or an MRI. A biopsy (taking a piece of the tumor to look at under a microscope) may be needed to know that the tumor is indeed a teratoma and not something else.

How is it treated?

Usually treatment for teratomas in the chest is surgery.

What happens after treatment?

When the tumor is taken out completely, most people are cured and there is little chance of recurrence (again, this applies only to teratomas in the chest).

The bottom line – How do I avoid it?

Unfortunately, there is no known way to prevent a teratoma from appearing.

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