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Malaghan Institute seeking volunteers for hookworm therapy clinical study

20 July 2019


In a first of its kind, the Malaghan Institute is seeking healthy volunteers to take part in a clinical trial designed to explore the therapeutic potential of human hookworms.

Funded by the Health Research Council, and in collaboration with the University of Otago Wellington, the trial’s ultimate aim is to find better treatment options for a range of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including coeliac, asthma, allergy, MS and inflammatory bowel disease.

Director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research Professor Graham Le Gros says the institute – New Zealand’s leader in immunology and immunotherapy research – has had an interest in hookworms for many years due to their ability to alter the immune system of their human host.

“Hookworms are masters at dampening down the human immune system to evade detection and expulsion. This offers huge therapeutic potential. Inflammatory and autoimmune diseases are characterised by an overactive immune system, so subduing this response is an obvious line of treatment. We want to better understand how these hookworms modulate the immune system and how we might manipulate this effect in a positive way to treat a range of diseases.”

Dr Stephen Inns, a gastroenterologist and senior lecturer at the University of Otago Wellington’s Department of Medicine says the increasing rates of inflammatory disease in the Western world raises the question – what’s changed?

“When we look at improvements in standards of living, hygiene and access to medicine, it seems likely that the loss of gut parasites, such as hookworms, from humans may be partially to blame. There could be a mutually beneficial relationship we’re missing out on.”

Dr Inns says there is a lack of depth of treatment options for inflammatory disease and all have significant adverse effects.

“A safer, natural therapeutic alternative is very appealing, and that’s what we’re exploring in this clinical trial.”

The Institute is seeking up to 15 Wellington-based volunteers aged between 18-65 years for the trial, who will be infected with a low, safe dose of Necator americanus larvae, and studied over the course of a year. Participants will be compensated for their time.

Malaghan Institute Head of Laboratories Mali Camberis says this initial trial is for healthy individuals with no pre-existing autoimmune or allergic disorders, to establish a baseline control for future trials.

“We’re looking for people to help us in our journey to provide practical solutions to what can be debilitating conditions for many New Zealanders.”

Ms Camberis says hookworm is a uniquely human adapted species that can to be tolerated by their human host with very little side effects.

“They can’t multiply inside their host, or be transmitted through physical contact or exchange of bodily fluids. With standard hygiene practices, there is absolutely no risk of participants infecting others.”

One of the goals of this trial – which has met strict regulatory and safety requirements – is to develop a good manufacturing practice (GMP) grade worm that can be used safely for ongoing trials and ultimately in some form as an approved therapeutic product.

“There is a significant unregulated industry for helminth therapy, involving people self-medicating for serious allergic and autoimmune conditions. We want to do the groundwork to ensure the safety and effectiveness of this type of treatment,” says Ms Camberis.

“We see a future where hookworms, or a hookworm-derived product, are an established therapy for auto-inflammatory or immune-mediated diseases, to treat patients and improve their overall quality of life.”

To find out more, or register interest in participating in the trial, email [email protected]