We're exploring the therapeutic potential of human hookworms to ultimately find better treatment options for a range of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including coeliac, asthma, allergy, MS and IBD.
In 2019, the Malaghan Institute began a clinical study to explore the therapeutic potential of human hookworms. The study seeks to understand the effects human hookworms have on a healthy individual’s immune system, gut bacteria composition and function.
This research was extended in September 2020 to investigate the feasibility of using human hookworms as a medication-free maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. Similar trials for perennial allergic rhinitis (hayfever) and eosinophilic esophagitis – a chronic, allergic inflammatory disease of the oesophagus – are in development.
As part of this research, the Institute has also been developing techniques for sorting, harvesting and storing hookworm, to ultimately establish a safe, reliable and consistent GMP (good manufacturing practice) grade hookworm product that can be used safely for ongoing trials and ultimately in some form as an approved therapeutic product.
Why study worms?
As long as there have been humans, there have been human parasites – opportunistic hitchhikers that seek resource and refuge inside our bodies. So what makes them of such interest to the scientists who study them?
- They’re the most successful organisms to infect humans – dating back as far as archaic humans.
- They’re skilled at establishing themselves in the body without harming their host. You can live for years with a friendly worm and show no negative symptoms.
- Parasitic worms have developed mechanisms to modulate the immune system of their host to promote their own survival and avoid detection and expulsion from the body.
Why are we interested in hookworms?
Our interest in hookworms is twofold – we study the mechanisms that parasitic worms use to subdue the immune system because of their potential to dampen harmful inflammatory immune responses. We’re also working to develop vaccines to target parasitic disease in developing nations, to prevent re-infection and break the cycle of disease.
It is thought that the loss of gut parasites such as hookworms from humans may be partially to blame for the increase in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. People who come from developed, Westernised countries experience less parasitic diseases (ie hookworm infection) but have higher rates of inflammatory and autoimmune disease.
Hookworms alter the immune system of their human host to help them persist in the body, dampening down the immune system to evade detection and expulsion. They do this by producing compounds that interact directly with immune cells in the body. This allows the hookworm to be tolerated by the human host yet leaves the immune system strong enough to be able to protect the human host against other diseases.
Because of this effect, it is thought that hookworms could be used to treat several inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. These diseases are characterised by an overactive immune system, so it is thought that dampening this immune response may impart some therapeutic benefit to patients.
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