WTF Fun Fact 13749 – Worm Therapy

What would make you agree to worm therapy? When you hear what they can do, you might be more interested than you could have imagined.

Imagine curing severe allergies or autoimmune diseases not with advanced biotech drugs but with worms? Yes, the creepy crawlies might just be the unexpected heroes in the saga of human health, specifically gut-dwelling parasites like hookworms.

Hookworms: The Gut’s Unlikely Allies

In a twist that might make even the bravest squirm, recent research explores using parasitic worms as a potential treatment for autoimmune diseases. This idea stems from an intriguing theory: these parasites, by damping down our immune systems, might stop it from attacking our own bodies—an overreaction that’s a hallmark of autoimmune issues.

Science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff, inspired by personal health challenges including alopecia and hay fever, ventured into this uncharted territory. His journey led him to Tijuana, where he intentionally infected himself with 30 hookworms. Yes, you read that right—Velasquez-Manoff allowed nearly three dozen parasites to take up residence in his intestines.

A Microscopic Invasion with Macro Implications

Hookworm larvae start their invasion by burrowing into the skin. They journey through the bloodstream to the lungs, then migrate to the small intestine where they clamp onto the intestinal walls and start feeding on the host’s blood. While this sounds like something out of a horror film, the real shocker comes from what happens next.

Once settled in the gut, these worms perform a bit of immunological magic. They suppress the immune system just enough to avoid being attacked by it. Researchers like P’ng Loke from the New York University School of Medicine suggest that this could prevent the immune system from overreacting. In theory, this should help alleviate symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

The Clinical Trial Turbulence

Excited by the potential, a pharmaceutical company, Coronado Biosciences, launched clinical trials to test this theory. They explored whether pig whipworms could help patients with Crohn’s disease. However, the results were disappointing. The trials showed that the patients who received the worm treatment did no better than those who took a placebo. Consequently, Coronado Biosciences saw its stock value crash and eventually shifted its business focus after canceling further trials.

Despite the setbacks in clinical trials, the concept of using parasitic worms for treating autoimmune diseases isn’t dead. The mixed results hint at a complex relationship between humans and parasites, possibly influenced by genetic factors or the specific conditions of the trials.

Velasquez-Manoff’s Personal Experiment

Back to our adventurous science writer—Velasquez-Manoff noticed significant temporary relief from his hay fever post-infestation. He even saw signs of hair growth, although minor. Unfortunately, the positive effects didn’t last. His symptoms returned, and the side effects of hosting the worms—like diarrhea and cramps—made the whole ordeal quite unpleasant.

Worm Therapy: A Gutsy Move?

Velasquez-Manoff’s personal conclusion was clear: the discomfort and risks of worm therapy did not outweigh its transient benefits. His experience underscores the complexity of biohacking with parasites. What works as a theoretical treatment might not translate into a practical or comfortable solution.

The Future of Worm Therapy

The journey of using parasites as a treatment is still in its infancy. While some may hold onto hope for worm-based therapies, current evidence suggests a cautious approach. Future research needs to address the variability in treatment outcomes and the potential long-term effects of such therapies.

In the meantime, those suffering from allergies or autoimmune diseases might want to stick to more conventional treatments. And as for the rest of us, perhaps it’s best to keep the worms in the garden, and out of our guts, at least for now.

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Source: “Could Worms In Your Gut Cure Your Allergies?” — NPR

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