Would you swallow hookworm eggs to cure your hay fever?
It sounds disgusting, but some people are being driven by sheer desperation to take this, literally, stomach-churning treatment, and it has name – ‘helminthic therapy’.
Surprisingly, it works (in some people, some of the time), and new research explains why.
A study published in The FASEB Journal has identified a molecule in hookworms that suppresses the body’s immune response. Basically, the worm secrets a protein that stops our bodies from attacking and killing it, and may also switch off other out-of-control immune responses, such as food allergies, hay fever, asthma, skin conditions and diseases like Multiple Sclerosis.
Parasitic worms and sea anemones are a strange pair, but together they may hold the key to treating many of the allergies and autoimmune diseases that plague the Western world.
Monash University’s Professor Raymond Norton, who was lead researcher on the study, has spent years researching sea anemone toxins, and thinks both animals – one a predator, the other a parasite – are crucial to calming the immune system.
Human trials of a sea anemone molecule discovered by the Professor are already underway. Once in pill form (likely to take three or four years), the hookworm parasite may then be used to engineer a super pill with “the best features of both” animals, Professor Norton says.
“We’d be looking to take some of the inspiration from the worm peptides and see if that allows us to design some better analogues that improve on the current sea anemone peptide,” he told The New Daily.
The hygiene hypothesis
The eradication of parasitic worm infections in the developed world may partly explain the spike in allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Both are amongst the fastest growing chronic conditions in Australia, according to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA). Almost 20 per cent of the Australian population has an allergic disease, while autoimmune diseases affect 5 per cent of the population and are more common than cancer or heart disease, ASCIA reports.
Professor Norton says there is “clearly” a correlation between improved hygiene and the increasing prevalence of these conditions, but whether it is cause and effect “is still an open question”.
“There could be some truth to this because worm infection is virtually unheard of in developed countries, yet the incidence of autoimmune diseases is high. But in developing countries the opposite is true,” Professor Norton says.
By wiping out parasites like hookworm, we may have thrown our immune systems out of whack, or so the theory goes.
To correct this, some people deliberately infect themselves with parasites – called helminthic therapy – usually as a last resort.
Thanks to new research, this nasty form of treatment may no longer be necessary. But there is “no doubt” that parasitic worms have a favourable effect on the immune system, Professor Norton says.
“It’s quite clear that infecting yourself with a worm if you’ve got an autoimmune disease has got the potential to help ameliorate it.
“We think that at least part of that is almost certainly due to these sea anemone-like peptides. If it turned out that most of the beneficial effects of worm infection were due to the peptides similar to the sea anemone peptide, then our view is that you’d be a whole lot better off just taking a pill that involved a sea anemone peptide than going to the trouble of infecting yourself with worms.
“There’s still a missing link in that story. We can’t put our hand on our heart yet and say that everything beneficial about a worm infection is captured in a peptide like a sea anemone peptide. Arguably, we think at least some of it has to be,” Professor Norton says.