Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Helminths and Autoimmune Disease

Finish eating your breakfast before reading today's post. Trust me. 
Image found here. 

Of course I've been reading everything that I can find about asthma lately. There's an enormous amount of information out there, and it takes time to sift through it all and try to make sense of it. Some recommendations and suggestions regarding asthma treatment seem logical and reasonable. I'd consider talking to my doctor about most of them.


Then I read about another therapy. I was totally flummoxed when I read that it's proponents claim that this therapy is a cure-all for asthma and a plethora of other autoimmune diseases. 

It's called helminthic therapy, which means the therapeutic use of parasitical worms to treat human disease. Or, in other words - willingly putting liveworms. into. your. body

Ew! Yuk! Barf! Gag! 

I immediately assumed that this was some weirdo cockamamy idea concocted by a sadist that just enjoyed seeing people do awful things to themselves. 

Boy, was I surprised when I read this from the National Institutes of Health:

There is an epidemic of immune-mediated disease in highly-developed industrialized countries. Such diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and asthma increase in prevalence as populations adopt modern hygienic practices. These practices prevent exposure to parasitic worms (helminths). Epidemiologic studies suggest that people who carry helminths have less immune-mediated disease. Mice colonized with helminths are protected from disease in models of colitis, encephalitis, Type 1 diabetes and asthma. Clinical trials show that exposure to helminths reduce disease activity in patients with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. This chapter reviews some of the work showing that colonization with helminths alters immune responses, against dysregulated inflammation. These helminth-host immune interactions have potentially important implications for the treatment of immune-mediated diseases

Blink. Blink. Are you kidding me??

Over many thousands of years, our genetic selves have evolved in close proximity to the many organisms that live within and on our bodies, and that we encounter through every day life. Due to the process of mutual co-evolution, some of these interactions have become important for proper development and maintenance of our immune systems, intestinal lining and perhaps other organs within our bodies. In the 20th Century, changes in our life-styles have been progressively removing us from our natural environment. This may have eliminated key microbial, viral and helminthic interactions resulting in system dysfunction predisposing us to immunologic and perhaps other diseases

But wait - there's more from this NIH study completed at the University of Iowa: 

One of the factors leading to the emergence of IBD may be lack of exposure to helminths. This exposure normally begins early in childhood, setting up immune response patterns that continue for the life of the individual. In addition to IBD, other immune-mediated diseases have emerged with establishment of modern hygiene.[34] Exposure to schistosomes can protect animals from developing insulin-dependent diabetes[69] or experimental autoimmune encephalitis (a model of multiple sclerosis).[70**,71] Exposure to helminths may protect from allergy and asthma.[51] This suggests that helminths may have served as a lid on a "Pandora's box" of immune pathology. Future study of helminths will identify mechanisms of immune regulation, will potentially uncover novel compounds that alter inflammatory responses, and will address the myriad of questions surrounding their potential for clinical application.

The authors of this study go on to describe their favorite helminth:

Favorable Characteristics of Trichuris Suis:
  • Closely related to human whipworm Trichuris trichuria
  • Produces a self-limited colonization in humans
  • Has no known pathogenic potential
  • Remains confined to the intestine
  • Does not multiply in the host
  • Cannot be directly spread to close contacts
  • Eggs can be obtained from pigs grown in specific pathogen-free environment
Um. Hm. Well, now. 

Come to think of it, way back in '76, my bacteriology professor, who was a very nice man but had a short fuse when it came to freshman nursing students, used to tell us that he thought that all the new anti-bacterial products entering the market were bad news. He predicted that killing off all his favorite germs and other nasty critters in our homes was not necessarily a good thing. We, of course, made twirly motions next to our temples when his back was turned, crossed our eyes, and stuck out our tongues. Indicating that we thought he was slightly batty. 

Yes, yes, Dr. Pinney - You were right. WE were the batty ones, for lots and lots of reasons. And, um, sorry about the twirly thing, in case you're reading this.....of course, I never actually did it, it was Kathy and Diane and Dianne....oh, and Karen. Absolutely Karen. 

What Dr. Pinney was trying to explain to us is now called the Hygiene Hypothesis, which is explained really well in this article written by Dr. Kristin Kirksiek and published in Infection Research. Here's the summary, but please read the whole article as she does an exceptionally good job in explaining more about helminth therapy and why it may work.

The trend is startling: for decades, allergies and autoimmune diseases have been on the rise. At the same time, we’ve gotten a relatively good handle on infectious diseases. Is there a connection? Yes, according to the widely supported “Hygiene Hypothesis”, which proposes that by reducing our exposure to infectious agents, we’re denying our immune system the practice it needs to develop correctly. Parasites – more specifically helminths – may play a particularly important role in this setting. Worms are not only masters of hiding, they have evolved quite a bag of tricks to suppress the immune system. As we have co-evolved with these live-in guests, we may have come depend on “worm-specific factors” to keep the immune system on track. Researchers have taken this notion to the next level, using helminths to effectively treat serious autoimmune diseases.

I don't think I'm ready to invite Trichuris suis into my colon anytime soon, but this is an intriguing concept that will be interesting to follow. 


Karen said...

Wow. Interesting concept. Let us know how it works out for you. Also quit trying to give me a bad name. No one believes for a minute it would be me misbehaving instead of you. :)

Blogger Mama said...

A very interesting thing to contemplate...

Also, thanks so much for the add to your "Links"!! :o)

Anonymous said...

Actually, although initially it sounds like a gross, scary therapy, hundreds of people have begun helminthic therapy since it has become available to the public through two or three companies. There are even a few using it for Sjogren's, although not nearly as many as have used it for inflammatory bowel disease, severe food allergies or severe asthma.

Oh, and I saw your blog post come up because I have helminthic therapy on google alerts. Oh, and I also use human whipworm to treat ulcerative colitis :)

Helminthic Therapy said...

I actually achieved remission from severe Crohn's by using helminthic therapy. I also got rid of my food allergies and seasonal allergies. You can find a LOT of research on this subject at under the studies section

There are 3 organisms that are used - safe, effective, microscopic - no yuck factor at all.

Some people have successfully put their Sjogren's into a full remission. There is a yahoo board where patients discuss this therapy and the website I listed has a link to it as well.
Let me know if you have any questions about it.

Anonymous said...

I really hope this is approved. I went on to the Sjogren's forum and people said they'd rather keep their disease than do this. Are you kidding me? Do you realize how much damage that does to your body? I used to think probiotics were gross, but now I take them every day. I'd try this.