Chronic diarrhoea could be treated using parasitic worms, according to a new study.
Researchers from the New York University Langone Medical Center in a study of monkeys found that the treatment restores gut bacteria to a healthy state. Other work in mice has already suggested conditions such as ulcerative colitis could be treated in this way, the BBC News reported. Inflammatory bowel diseases, like colitis, are often fuelled by a wrongly targeted response by the immune system to gut bacteria.
Such diseases are more common in developed countries – and scientists suggest this is because people in developing countries have more exposure to parasitic worm (helminth) infections and therefore have a natural protection that has evolved as people and worms learnt to co-exist. Recent studies have used parasitic worms to successfully treat inflammatory bowel disease in humans, but it is unclear exactly how they do this. The latest study looked at monkeys because young macaques kept in captivity often develop chronic diarrhoea that can be hard to treat.
Five macaques with diarrhoea were treated with parasitic worms called whipworms. Tissue samples were taken before and after treatment and it was found the balance of gut bacteria was restored to required levels. And four out of five animals had less diarrhoea and started to gain weight.
"The idea for treating colitis with worms is not new, but how this therapy might work remains unclear. Our findings suggest that exposure to helminths may improve symptoms by restoring the balance to the microbial communities that are attached to the intestinal wall," Dr P'ng Loke, of the New York University Langone Medical Center, who led the study, said.
The researchers now plan a study in humans to look at how pig helminth eggs might help alleviate symptoms of colitis. Professor Graham Rook, of the centre for clinical microbiology at University College London, said a number of research teams were investigating the effects of parasitic worms in various conditions. "This is not part of the hygiene hypothesis (which says exposure to bacteria strengthened the immune system). It's the 'old friends' hypothesis," Rook said. "We co-evolved with these things, so they had to be tolerated. We found ways of suppressing the immune systems, and in some way have come to depend on them," Rook added. He added that the field of research as a whole would be "hugely significant". "With helminths, if you get the dose right, you can probably live with worms and not have symptoms," he added. The study was published in PLOS Pathogens.