Sept. 23, 2003 -- The thought of swallowing live worm eggs may turn your stomach, but that's exactly what researchers say may safely relieve the abdominal distress caused by inflammatory bowel disease.
Each year, about 600,000 Americans are diagnosed with IBD, a condition that consists of a spectrum of disorders that vary with cause and degree of intestinal inflammation. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are the two major, chronic inflammatory diseases that cause inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the digestive tract. This results in severe pain, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal bleeding.
However, in about one-third of the world -- primarily underdeveloped countries with poor sanitary conditions -- these diseases are practically nonexistent. And some researchers speculate it's because those residents may be protected against IBD by having an abundance of parasitic "helminths," a scientific classification for various types of parasitic worms that live in the intestines of humans and animals.
"It turns out that countries where IBD is common are those industrialized, developed nations like the U.S., where there are no intestinal helminths. Conversely, where helminths are prevalent, the incidence of IBD is very low," says gastroenterologist Robert W. Summers, MD, of the University of Iowa College of Medicine.
"In fact, Crohn's and ulcerative colitis really emerged in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s, when we began to shift to improved plumbing and sanitation and we no longer fertilized soil with both human and animal waste," he tells WebMD. "Until then, these parasites were very common. And we didn't have much IBD."
Besides protecting against IBD, Summers' research indicates that parasitic worm eggs may also provide relief to those with Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, which typically strikes during the teens or 20s and can last a lifetime.
He and his colleagues administered to seven IBD patients a solution containing thousands of eggs of Trichuris suis, the so-called "whipworm" (named for its whipping tail) commonly found in the intestines of pigs.
During the initial treatment and observation period all the patients showed evidence of improvement, defined as improved scores in a quality-of-life questionnaire and as a drop in a symptoms score. "All had active IBD when the study began and weren't doing well on medications," he says. "On the initial dose, we noticed an improvement, but their symptoms recurred. So we continued with additional doses every two weeks. Some patients have continued getting the doses for years now and are doing well. And we have yet to detect any side effects in any patient."