July 13, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Parasitic Worms Regulate Immune System

Most people will not be ready to stomach a suggestion from the July 9 issue of Science1: parasitic worms can be good for you.  Yikes: what’s next– worm therapy?
    According to Joel Weinstock of the University of Iowa, evidence is increasing that worms help regulate the immune system, and show promising results for taming inflammatory bowel syndrome and a host of autoimmune diseases.  Ingrid Wickelgren writes,

The idea may sound crazy, but it is buttressed by studies showing that treating mice with eggs, larvae, or extracts of helminths—parasitic worms such as flukes, flatworms, tapeworms, and pinworms—can dampen, and perhaps prevent, allergic reactions, reduce the severity of a multiple sclerosis (MS)-like disease, and block the development of type I diabetes….  Recent data indicate that helminths may protect against disease by invigorating so-called regulatory T cells, which function as the immune system’s police officers and keep it from running amok.  Deficits in or problems with these cells could contribute to many types of immune disorders.

Don’t sign up for Dr. Weinstock’s classes.  Here’s how he experiments: “In a stunt reminiscent of the TV reality show Fear Factor, dozens of unpaid volunteers have recently been gulping Gatorade laced with 2500 live eggs from parasitic worms.”


1Ingrid Wickelgren, “Can Worms Tame the Immune System?” Science, Vol 305, Issue 5681, 170-171, 9 July 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5681.170].

This is not what Luther had in mind when he went to the Diet of Worms.  As gross at it sounds, this story leads to some food for thought.  Are parasites inherently evil?  Worms can surely lead to some very severe and deadly conditions, with morbid consequences.  This story should never minimize the suffering of those afflicted.  But maybe the problem is not the original concept, but things out of control and run amok.  Maybe in a perfect world some of these things had a function.  It’s when things get out of balance they can get ugly.  For more on this possibility, see the 10/24/2003 headline on maggot therapy, the 06/04/2003 story on bacteria, and the 02/12/2003 headline on toxins in small amounts.

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