They may have a challenge getting people over the “ick” factor, but Australian researchers have found that hookworms can be used to reduce the symptoms of celiac disease, as well as other inflammatory conditions such as asthma and Crohn's.
In a small one-year study, James Cook University researchers infected 12 celiac disease sufferers with 20 Necator americanus
(hookworm) larvae, Science Daily
They then fed them increasing doses of gluten — a protein in wheat and other grains that celiac sufferers can’t tolerate. At the start of the study, the volunteers were fed just one-tenth of a gram of gluten per day (the equivalent about a one-inch strand of spaghetti), but by the end they were consuming three grams (75 spaghetti straws) per day.
"By the end of the trial, with worms onboard, the trial subjects were eating the equivalent of a medium-sized bowl of spaghetti, with no ill effects," said JCU)immunologist Paul Giacomin. "That's a meal that would usually trigger a debilitating inflammatory response, leaving a celiac patient suffering symptoms like diarrhea, cramps and vomiting."
Two-third of the participants in the study were able to increase their gluten tolerance by a factor of 60, said Alex Loukas, head of the Centre for Biodiscovery and Molecular Development of Therapeutics at JCU.
"We and others have had promising results in earlier trials but this is clear proof-of-principle of the benefits of hookworm in treating inflammatory disease," said Loukas.
The researchers said parasitic worms are able to scale back the human immune response — a skill that enables them to survive, and thrive, in the human gut, without compromising their host's ability to fight off other infectious diseases. They believe the key to the hookworm's anti-inflammatory prowess lies in the proteins that the worms secrete.
Those proteins could lead to the development of an entirely new class of anti-inflammatory drugs.
"This trial has confirmed hookworms as our choice of parasite for clinical applications," said Loukas. "But despite our growing fondness for them, we do acknowledge that a protein pill will have broader market appeal than a dose of worms."
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