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Parasitic Worms Ease IBD

May Reduce Overactive Immune Response Behind Crohn's Disease, Ulcerative Colitis

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IBD is believed to be among the "autoimmune" disorders that includes lupus, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis and may result from an overactive immune response, in which cells that normally attack invading disease and infection instead target healthy tissue. With IBD, the immune system may overreact to normal intestinal bacteria, causing inflammation and gradually eating away at the intestinal lining.

 

Summers says the worm eggs decrease this overactive immune response, possibly by secreting a substance.

 

"We know that people with certain colonized worms in their digestive tracts have a reduced immune response," he tells WebMD. "Therefore, we're hopeful that this treatment may someday prove useful for other autoimmune diseases."

In fact, Crohn's and ulcerative colitis are often treated with medications that suppress immune response (immunomodulators), such as AZA and Mexate. Other IBD drug treatments include antibiotics, corticosteroids such as Prednisone, or aminosalicylates such as Azulfidine and Dipentum.

More recently, some patients have been treated with "probiotics" -- bacteria given specifically to retain remission that appear to work as well as immune-suppressing drugs, says IBD expert Seymour Katz, MD, past president of the American College of Gastroenterology and clinical professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine.

"So it's not that much of a galactic leap to say, 'Let's go one step further and introduce these worms to change the immunologic response of IBD patients," Katz tells WebMD. "This is certainly an intriguing concept that has merit, but the data is still very premature. And knowing the litigious nature of society, in addition to the fact that most people are repulsed by the thought of being given worms, there's a lot of baggage that needs to be overcome."

Unlike other parasites that can cause infection, the pig whipworm doesn't cause problems because it's not recognized by the human body as a foreign invader, and only colonizes for a few weeks. The Iowa researchers have also tested three other types of parasitic worms in studies of mice induced with a form of colitis. All have been effective, says Summers.

"These worms have been around for 3 million years," he says. "And one-third of the world's population is walking around with them in their GI tracts today and apparently having no problems."

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