Hookworms carry serious risks and infect more than one billion people worldwide. But it turns out that this intestinal parasite may have an upside. New research suggests that intestinal worms may be useful for treating food allergies, asthma, and irritable bowel syndrome, among other conditions.

In 2004, a research team at Trinity College Dublin showed mice infected with parasitic worms had a reduced risk of colitis, a gastrointestinal illness. At the same time, University of Nottingham immunobiologist David Pritchard was testing the same theory in humans, trying to reproduce what he’d observed in Papua, New Guinea. While conducting field work, he had observed that Papuans infected with hookworms were less likely to be affected by asthma, hay fever, and other auto-immune conditions. Pritchard’s research team found that those with more parasites had reduced levels of allergy-related antibodies in their blood.

How Hookworms Affect Immune Response

In one way, then, the parasite’s survival was actually benefiting its host. Prichard hypothesized “The allergic response evolved to help expel parasites, and we think the worms have found a way of switching off the immune system in order to survive… That’s why infected people have fewer allergic symptoms.” When study volunteers were given hookworm therapy, their symptoms from autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease and asthma were shown to be improved. Dr. Quentin Bickle, an immunologist who has designed such experiments, commented “This will be an interesting immunological journey, and early indications suggest that therapeutic dosing regimes can be developed.”

What do you think of this unusual idea? Would you consider being infected with hookworms if it meant relief from food allergies?

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