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Going down to the lab to eat worms

26 April 2013


Parasitic worms have a reputation for causing disease. So the idea of being deliberately infected with them to improve your health might seem, literally, hard to swallow.

A few decades ago the same could probably be said of bacteria. Yet probiotic capsules containing billions of live bacteria are now taken routinely to stimulate digestion and boost immunity, particularly after prolonged antibiotic use. So why not worms?

The idea of taking a dose of worms to improve health is actually not as farfetched as it might sound. In the past decade there have been several clinical trials overseas investigating the potential of using live helminth worms (specifically pig worm and whipworm eggs – not the kind you find in your garden) to calm the gut inflammation associated with ulcerative colitis, IBD and Crohn’s disease. In recent years there has also been considerable interest in helminth therapy for autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis. Although the treatment isn’t for everyone, patients involved in the studies reported an easing of their symptoms, with minimal adverse effects.

The reason helminth therapy is thought to have such promise is simply because parasitic worms are so successful at controlling the gut environment they live in. They release factors that dampen down the immune system and have been shown to restore the balance of good gut microbiota.

Malaghan researchers Mali Camberis and Dr Tiffany Bouchery- Smith (pictured on front cover) are in no doubt that helminth worms have the ability to influence the development of immune responses. Working alongside Professor Graham Le Gros, they have been studying the rodent nematode Nippostrongylus brasiliensis, to gain a better insight into how these worms are able to modulate host gut immune responses. The knowledge from which will feed into the development of therapies for diseases where the immune response is overactive, such as IBD, colitis, asthma and allergy. It also has implications for diseases requiring a boost in immunity such as cancers of the gut.


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