Scientists are looking into parasitic worms to help control autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis. It sounds disgusting but thankfully, the scientists don’t want to infect people with the worms. Instead, they are looking to determine what molecule in the worms might help and then develop a medicine based on that molecule.
Autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis, occur when your immune system goes on high alert and attacks your body’s healthy cells, causing inflammation and damage. In psoriasis, new skin cells grow quickly and rise to the surface of your skin, causing plaques of thickened skin that is often itchy and painful.
Scientists in the recent study, completed at the Monash University in Australia, want to test to see if peptides discovered in parasitic worms can help to lower the immune system reaction and therefore treat autoimmune diseases. The lead author, Ray Norton, is among the experts that believe there might be a connection between the two. Parasitic worms are very rare in developed countries, where there is a high incidence of autoimmune diseases. In undeveloped countries, where parasitic worms are more common, the level of autoimmune diseases is much lower. It is possible that the parasitic worms calm the immune system in the host so it does not attack them.
A previous study, published in the journal Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology in 2009 looked at helminthic therapy, which is self-infecting with parasitic worms as a treatment for autoimmune diseases. The authors believe that the dramatic increase in autoimmune diseases in the recent past can be attributed to, at least in part, the focus on cleanliness and modern hygienic practices which prevent us from being exposed to parasitic worms. Clinical studies, according to the article, have shown that helminthes (a type of parasitic worm), can lower symptoms and autoimmune reactions from ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Mice infected with the worm were protected from diseases such as colitis, encephalitis, Type 1 diabetes and asthma. Most people, however, are disgusted with the thought of having these parasitic worms inserted into their bodies.
Norton doesn’t want to place parasitic worms in people. Instead, he has isolated a molecule he believes will have the same effect. This molecule, or peptide, hopefully, will calm the immune system. He hopes to continue the research, in conjunction with Dr. Sandeep Chhabra from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and find a way to create a medication from the peptide (in pill form) that can improve the lives of those with autoimmune diseases, including psoriasis. Taking a pill sounds much more doable than self-infecting yourself with worms.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.