Intestinal Worms to Treat Gut Diseases?!
First it was fecal transplantation. That’s the amazingly effective, remarkably low-tech procedure in which stool from a healthy person is introduced into the colon of a diseased person to restore healthy gut microbe function—and eliminate chronic disease. It’s still experimental, but shows enormous promise, especially for people who have endured repeated rounds of antibiotic therapy, and who suffer from chronic gut infections as a result. Some of these patients have been brought to death’s doorstep with horrible infections caused by raging pathogens, with little hope of recovery. Fecal transplantation saved their lives.
Now scientists are talking about something even ickier to treat gut diseases. Worms. As in intestinal parasites. You know; hookworms, for example. I know. Yuck does’t begin to cover my response to this. And yet…
Inflammatory conditions affecting the lining of the gut—think celiac disease, or inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and Colitis)—are on the rise. Celiac is a genetic condition that renders a sufferer incapable of breaking down gluten, a protein complex common in wheat and related products. Even a small amount of gluten can make these folks seriously ill. And then there’s the surging epidemic of people who believe they are gluten sensitive or gluten intolerant.
Australian researchers recently conducted a groundbreaking study in which they investigated the role of intestinal parasites—worms—in gut health. The subjects were patients with celiac disease. Unable to ingest even the tiniest amount of gluten, they were purposefully infected with hookworm larvae.
Long story short, within a few months the subjects were able to go from eating the equivalent of a one-inch piece of spaghetti to eating an entire bowl with no ill effects. When offered drugs to eliminate the parasites, most subjects refused, choosing instead to live with their passengers in return for the freedom to eat without fear of severe illness.
While no one is suggesting that infection with intestinal parasites is a viable solution for most people suffering from inflammatory bowel conditions, the experiment raises the possibility that proteins secreted by the worms may one day be harnessed by researchers as a safe treatment for conditions affecting the guts of people in developed nations.
John Croese, Paul Giacomin, Severine Navarro, Andrew Clouston, Leisa McCann, Annette Dougall, Ivana Ferreira, Atik Susianto, Peter O'Rourke, Mariko Howlett, James McCarthy, Christian Engwerda, Dianne Jones, Alex Loukas. Experimental hookworm infection and gluten microchallenge promote tolerance in celiac disease. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.jaci.2014.07.022