Worm me up

1 minute read

Robin Ann Smith contributed a guest post to Scientific American, titled “The worms within”. The main idea is that the immune system evolved to deal with parasitic worms, and some evidence suggests that autoimmune disorders may be exacerbated by the lack of worm exposure during childhood.

Naturally, that means we should give sick people worms, right?

Researchers at the University of Iowa are treating patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with "cocktails" laced with microscopic whipworm eggs. It may sound like a witchs brew, but for some patients with IBD a painful disorder characterized by diarrhea, bleeding and fever its a worthwhile tradeoff. The patients had tried multiple treatments to relieve their symptoms, but nothing worked. After 24 weeks of worm therapy, 23 of the 29 volunteers went into remission.

Well, I suppose you can’t argue with results. Still, it’s a little like saying red wine helps reduce heart disease. It is statistically demonstrable, but it may hurt some people (sulfites, alcohol) and therefore you still want to have some better understanding of the mechanism. Naturally, that is easier said than done:

Why not identify the mystery compounds the worms secrete, and develop a drug that mimics their effects? When I asked Parker this question, he was skeptical. "Each worm constantly secretes dozens if not hundreds of different molecules as it travels through the body. Thats hard to reproduce with a drug."

Yes, a passel of worms is an uncontrolled experiment with possible bad or catastrophic side effects for some patients. Hard to spin that as a good thing. Worse, worms are potentially communicable. Maybe low risk, but tell that to the nursing home.

Still, I’m perfectly willing to accept that worms help many patients and may be a miracle in some cases. We seem to be moving toward the idea of manipulating health by adjusting the body’s internal ecology – so-called “probiotics”, diet changes, and deliberate inoculation with bacterial strains. Now worms.