It seems unlikely that helminths, worm-like critters that like to hang out in our intestines, would have any kind of beneficial effect; however, research is showing that some specific worm parasites actually alleviate inflammatory immune response. (1)
These specific intestinal parasites have been shown to relieve autoimmune flare-ups and lessen the severity of autism spectrum disorder.
One father, Stewart Johnson, brought this therapy a significant amount of attention in his search for something to help his teenage son, Lawrence, whose autistic spectrum disorder often manifested as extremely violent and aggressive behavior. Having tried several interventions, such as music therapy, dietary changes, and pharmaceutical medications, nothing had a sustained effect, and Stewart was intent on finding something that could reduce what he called "freak-outs."
In an interview with Bob Grant of The Scientist, Stewart says, "A large part of my free time and a lot of time I should have been sleeping was given over to researching what, if any, ways there are to try and get a handle on some of these symptoms... I wasn't looking to cure autism. I was looking for a way to make our lives bearable."
Stewart came across the work of a group of researchers from the University of Iowa, specifically that of Joel Weinstock who had successfully treated Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis with pig whipworm, Trichuris suis. Stewart then made a mental leap: he found several reports that demonstrated a connection between the glial cell degeneration and inflated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are present in inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.
Certain parasitic worms are able to have a beneficial effect because they modulate the T helper cell 1 (Th1) and T helper cell 2 (Th2) axis. When this system becomes imbalanced, immune abnormalities ensue.
Th1 response occurs when immune cells perceive a pathogen, such a virus, intracellular bacterium, fungus, a protozoan, or a cancer cell. Th1 cell-mediated response will produce pro-inflammatory cytokines. Persistent Th1-mediated inflammation has been linked with Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythemaosus, and other autoimmune conditions. Excessive Th1 inflammatory response can be regulated by Th2 cytokines.
Th2 cells induce an immune response that targets parasites, toxins, and allergens. With this model, it makes sense that pig whipworm, a parasite, would dampen the excessive Th1 inflammatory immune response that is often implicated in autoimmunity.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines are not limited to the gut. Their effect is systemic. This accounts for the uncanny connection that is currently being made between the state of the gut and state of the brain.
When researching alternative methods to calm down the severe inflammation in his son's brain, Stewart found scientists that had already made the connection between harmless intestinal parasites like pig whipworm and lack of autoimmune pathology. These scientists hypothesized that one reason why conditions like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are currently so prevalent is the general sterility of modern food, environment, and lifestyle.
Because parasitic worms seem to have the ability to promote an immunomodulatory effect, Stewart suggested parasite therapy to Lawrence's doctor, Eric Hollander. Hollander was at first skeptical. However, after investigation he found research to support the therapy and ordered pig whipworm eggs, T. suis ova (TSO), from a European company, OvaMed.
After Stewart and Hollander received permission from the FDA, they had Lawrence drink a solution of roundworm eggs every two weeks. After some trial and error regarding dosage, Lawrence stopped his violent behavior within 10 weeks of treatment.
Because his son had such a positive response to T. suis ova, Stewart Johnson presented his experience to the Seaver Autism Center during its annual conference in 2007. Since then, FDA-approved therapy has been difficult to obtain. However, researchers continue to conduct studies that explore the immune modulatory effects of certain parasites, like pig whipworm, on patients that have systemic inflammatory conditions.
Outside of the blood brain barrier, immune response is a complex system of checks and balances. Research is showing that we have various symbiotic relationships with microorganisms, such as parasites and bacteria. Although Helminth Therapy is still not FDA-approved, investigation into the mechanisms behind it efficacy demonstrate that maintaining the inner ecosystem is invaluable when alleviating immune-related conditions. In the meantime, we can supplement the inner ecosystem with the friendly microflora found in Body Ecology Probiotic Beverages and by culturing our own foods at home.