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Could a Tiny Worm Help Treat Autism?

Researchers see promise in two novel therapies

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Hollander reported that the main side effect of whipworm therapy, diarrhea, occurred about as often in those taking a placebo, or dummy medication.

The bath study involved 15 children with autism who alternated days soaking in a 102-degree hot tub versus a 98-degree hot tub.

Researchers found that the kids had improved social behaviors on days when they soaked in the 102-degree tub.

The findings verify earlier reports that about one-third of people with autism show an improvement in symptoms when they suffer a fever, the researchers said in background information.

"Parents have said when their child got fevers, they see a marked improvement in autism symptoms," Ring said. "This has been reported for years. This study is just one angle you can take experimentally to get at whether this is a true response."

Hollander said he plans to follow up the whipworm study with a larger sample that eventually will contain young patients and lower-functioning adults with autism.

Larger follow-ups are necessary before such treatments can gain acceptance, Ring said.

There is some doubt surrounding the usefulness of the whipworm, which has been investigated as a way of treating other diseases related to the immune system, Ring added.

A major trial testing a whipworm treatment for Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, recently failed, casting a shadow over the worm's effectiveness as an immune system modulator, he said. The company that co-funded Hollander's research, Coronado Biosciences, also was behind the Crohn's study.

"I think it's still a ways away before we know whether these treatments are going to be effective," Ring said. "But these findings are helping put us on a road to better understand these effects."

Data and conclusions presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

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