Parasitic worms: Friend or Foe?
Parasitic worms, also known as helminths, can live in several parts of the body – from just under our skin to in our intestines. This doesn’t sound like a wonderful new treatment but scientists have found that small doses of these worms may actually have some health benefits. To survive in the human body parasitic worms have to be able to dampen the host immune response and calm inflammation. To do this they secrete molecules that interact and modulate the immune system away from the inflammatory response that is dangerous to the worm. It is this ability that scientists are hoping to harness to develop novel drugs to treat inflammatory diseases.

Our lab is currently working on the glycoprotein ES-62. It is secreted by Acanthocheilonema viteae, a parasitic worm that naturally infects gerbils. We have shown that ES-62 can inhibit the development of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and asthma in mouse models and are currently investigating whether it can also be beneficial in obesity, type 2 diabetes and ageing.

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The theory behind this unconventional new approach is that over the thousands of years of co-evolution (there are reports of helminth infections dating back to the times of the ancient Egyptians) the worms have had a beneficial effect on our immune system. This was described in the Hygiene Hypothesis by Strachen in 1989 which proposes that a lack of exposure to infections early in life has led to the increase in incidence of immune disorders. It is thought that exposure to infections during childhood ‘trains’ the immune system to respond correctly. In Western countries where we have effectively eliminated parasitic infections, we are seeing an increase in immune disorders.

There has been a mixed collection of results of clinical trials using live worms to treat autoimmune diseases such as colitis and multiple sclerosis. Many people have opted not to wait for the therapy to become approved and are using worms to self-treat their illnesses at home, purchasing the worms from companies such as Worm therapy based in Mexico.

Parasitic worms
It is estimated that 1.5 billion people are infected with soil-transmitted helminths worldwide, mostly in developing nations. At high levels of infection they can cause abdominal pain, malnutrition and, in the case of hookworms, anaemia. Children are often infected at an early age, leading to accumulation of a large dose of worms which can have severe detrimental effects on their physical and mental development. Schistosomiasis is another common helminth infection, approximately 200 million people are infected. Most of the symptoms are caused by the body reacting to the worms eggs which can become lodged in the blood vessels around the intestine. The third most common helminth infection is caused by filarial nematodes. They infect around 120 million people and can cause river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

Autimmunity and allergic diseases
The immune system usually defends us against bacteria, parasites and viruses, and can tell the difference between foreign bodies and our own cells. Immune disorders are diseases that occur when the immune system accidently attacks the wrong target. This can cause autoimmune diseases where the immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissues such as the skin, joints or nerve cells. In some diseases, such as type 1 diabetes the body only attacks the one organ - the pancreas, and in others, such as Lupus, the body can attack multiple sites in the body.
Immune disorders also includes allergic diseases, where the immune system attacks harmless environmental particles such as pollen or food particles like peanuts leading to allergies.