Parasitic Worms: A Retro Cure for Autoimmune Diseases?

Tired of suffering from Crohn’s disease, Michael, a 31-year-old financial planner from New York City, turned to a last resort – an underground network of "worm pushers" in cyberspace.

Michael, who asked that his last name not be revealed, chose to undergo helminthic therapy – infecting himself with Necator Americanus, or microscopic hookworm larvae, in order to put his autoimmune disease into remission. Helminthic therapy, also called worm therapy, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but it has seen significant success around the world.

Worms as medicine? Sounds crazy, but it’s consistent with the hygiene hypothesis -- the theory that the organisms we consider harmful today were protecting our immune systems before modern medicine.

Prior to the 20th century, autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis and lupus, as well as asthma and allergies, were virtually nonexistent. People didn't bathe frequently, and they were exposed more often and for longer periods to animal dander and animal feces. Advocates of helminthic therapy suggest that exposure to those organisms immunized people to their bad effects.

Seeking a "cure" for his "incurable" disease, Michael contacted Jasper Lawrence, owner of Autoimmune Therapies and moderator of a Yahoo group of helminthic therapy, to arrange a meeting outside of the U.S.

Lawrence, who used to suffer from severe allergies and asthma – and was dependent on the anti-inflammatory drug prednisone to survive – self-infected himself with hookworms after traveling to Cameroon in 2006.

“At the time, I didn’t know whether I’d been successful or not,” Lawrence, an American citizen, who runs his business out of Central America to avoid interference with the FDA, told “But after an examination, I was in fact infected, and after 16 weeks, I no longer had allergies or asthma.”

Michael, who spent most of his 20s in and out of the hospital, undergoing several surgeries and taking a host of different medications, had followed Lawrence’s Yahoo group for three years and spoken to many of its followers. Symptoms of Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease, include, but are not limited to, abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, arthritis and fatigue. When he simply couldn’t take it any longer, Michael decided to take the plunge.

After purchasing the worms from Lawrence for $3,000, Michael infected himself by applying a bandage packed with worms to his arm. The worms seeped into his skin within several hours; the only side effect he felt was some minor itching, which was relieved by using Benadryl.

“I started feeling better after three months,” Michael said. “I stopped taking my medicine, and I usually get sick two weeks after a skipped dose. I also didn’t have food allergies anymore.”

Scientific Evidence
Miracle? Coincidence? Luck? Maybe, but a group of doctors, including Dr. Joel Weinstock, professor and director of gastroenterology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, lend credence to the hygiene hypothesis.

Weinstock, who has been studying this concept since the early 1990s, has found that parasitic worms have a calming effect on their hosts' immune systems. He took what he had learned and applied it to the hygiene hypothesis and, several years later, he and his colleagues started testing helminthes in mice with asthma, Type 1 diabetes, MS and inflammatory bowel disease. Sure enough, the diseased mice got better.

Weinstock started a round of human trials, which Michael was a part of, but this was a different kind of worm – Trichuris suis, or pig parasite, which can stay alive in a human’s body for only two weeks. This time, in order to consume the worm, Michael drank a glass of water teeming with the invisible, tasteless creatures.

But here’s the catch: Because these worms stay alive for a few weeks – Michael felt better only for a short time, which ultimately led him to contact Lawrence for help.

Weinstock published results from the helminth study in 2005, which said that 23 out of 29 Crohn's patients went into remission.

Similar studies like Weinstock's are popping up around the globe, and he suspects a "worm-based" pill may one day -- and not too far off -- help patients like Michael.

Environment vs. Genetics
If infected with too many hookworms, you can become anemic, or worse – die, which is why Weinstock does not want patients with autoimmune disease running off to Central America to get worms.

“Most people who go for helminthic therapy do it as a last resort, as all conventional treatment failed them,” Michael said. “They usually have an autoimmune illness for many years, did a lot of research in their field, and are experts in their disease and its treatment.”

But Weinstock thinks there are greater lessons to be learned from all of this: One, the environment plays a greater role in autoimmune disease than genetics, and two, Americans may be going overboard when it comes to hygiene.

“I think we need to re-examine the elements of healthy hygiene and whether it improves life and what aspects are necessary,” Weinstock said. “Is it harmful for kids to get soil in their mouth? Maybe not. Are we using too much hand sanitizer? Perhaps we are going against evolution.”

Adding celebrity to the theory is actress Kellie Martin -- famous for her roles as Becca Thatcher on “Life Goes On,” and Lucy Knight on “ER” -- who is starting to speak up about the hygiene hypothesis as well.

Martin, who lost her sister, Heather, at the age of 19 to lupus, is the spokeswoman for the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. She recently heard Weinstock speak at a conference titled “The Global State of Autoimmunity Today” at the United Nations.

“For me, it confirmed my suspicion that I need to give my family, especially my daughter, organic foods, free of toxins, and keep our lives as stress-free as possible,” Martin said.

Martin said she was excited to hear about the research on worms. Though no one advocates living in "filth," she said allowing one’s body to react to healthy “flora” in and out of the body makes sense to her.

“When we are too clean, we can strip away beneficial bacteria that is essential to the normal functioning of our bodies,” said Martin, who wants to do what she can to protect her 4-year-old daughter Maggie from developing an autoimmune disease – even though she may be genetically predisposed.

“I guess we can chalk it up to: moderation is key. Let your kid get dirty and be a kid, and don’t douse them with hand sanitizers every five minutes.”