Friends in low places

By John Pastor • Published: March 28th, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Movies have been made about wacky fifth-graders eating worms, but noshing on nematodes is certainly not the pastime of sensible people, right?

Well, brace yourself, because what you are about to hear may make you gulp.

In clinical experiments, patients with brain diseases and inflammatory bowel disorders are swallowing thousands of whipworm eggs taken from the intestines of pigs.

Once these eggs reach the patients’ intestines, they hatch into worms. The body naturally eliminates these creepy crawlers after about a week, and the treatment is repeated.

Meanwhile, researchers in Britain plan to administer parasitic hookworms to multiple sclerosis patients via topical patches.

The worms will burrow into the volunteers’ arms and cause infections that will be prolonged for about nine months, after which the volunteers will be “de-wormed.”

The hope is these deliberate infestations of parasitic worms … technically called helminthic (hell-MIN-thick) therapy … will reboot the patients’ immune systems, creating a helpful, anti-inflammatory effect that could be useful against a range of diseases, such as M.S. and Crohn’s disease.

Why these wormy interventions are helpful is mysterious, though.

Scientists speculate people who grow up in modern, hygienic conditions don’t come in contact with as many germs as earlier generations did. Their immune systems go into hyperdrive at the slightest threat, and their bodies become ravaged by friendly fire, explaining the rise in autoimmune problems such as diabetes and allergies.

Another explanation says we’ve lost touch with the ancient germs we evolved with, which again pushed our internal ecosystems out of balance.

Whatever the reason, growing evidence shows helminthic therapy may be helpful, similar to how the bacteria in yogurt aid digestion.

Of course, more research is needed before worms win a place in the dairy section of the local grocery store.