Could a Tiny Worm Help Treat Autism?
Researchers see promise in two novel therapies
Unlike deadly whipworms in dogs, these whipworms don't harm humans, Hollander said. "The whipworm doesn't reproduce in the gut, and it doesn't penetrate the intestines, so it doesn't cause illness in humans," Hollander said. The gut clears itself of the worms every two weeks, which is why patients had to be retreated.
Use of the worms relates to the "hygiene hypothesis," which holds that some autoimmune disorders might be caused by a lack of microbes or parasites present in the body during earlier, less hygienic times, Hollander said. These bugs might help regulate the immune response in the human body.
In this case, it was found that the adults receiving the worm treatment became less compulsive and better able to deal with change.
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.