Wormy Cocktail Fights Crohn's Disease
Unconventional Approach Re-educates the Immune System, Relieving Symptoms
May 19, 2004 (New Orleans) -- Call it the medical edition of
Researchers report they are using helminths -- intestinal worms
-- to combat Crohn's disease, the miserable, incurable disorder of the
intestine characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight
loss, and fever.
In the study, about three-fourths of people with Crohn's
disease given pig whipworm in a popular drink went into remission, reports Joel
V. Weinstock, MD, professor of gastroenterology-hepatology and director of the
Center for Digestive Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in
The study was presented at a major medical meeting of digestive
How well are you managing your Crohn's? Find out now.
Weinstock explains that there is solid logic behind the
Giving Worms Back to the People
Crohn's disease, like many other disorders, is a disease of the
20th century, he says. And one of the major differences between "now"
and then is that kids no longer get worms, Weinstock says.
"Children [in developed nations] are no longer exposed to
helminths," he tells WebMD. "Worms used to be around in their
gastrointestinal tract, in their bloodstream."
Helminths don't just sit around, he says; they help regulate
the immune system. And Crohn's disease is caused by inflammation of the small
intestine -- inflammation that appears to result from an inappropriate immune
response to normal gut bacteria.
Those observations, Weinstock says, led to the thinking that
the "deworming" of our children may be partly or fully responsible for
the emergence of diseases like Crohn's. It follows, therefore, that giving the
worms back to the people could re-educate the immune system, help regulate the
response to inflammation, and wipe out the disease.
"We're the only people in history who have lived without
worms," Weinstock says. "So we wanted to see if giving worms could be
Worms 'Easy to Take'
The study was easy, he says. The pig whipworms grow and
colonize in people, but only for a short period of time, Weinstock says.
"They're real easy to take," he says. "You just
swallow the eggs." The eggs were dissolved in a popular drink, which
Weinstock declined to name for "fear of putting the company out of
Of the 29 people with Crohn's disease who agreed to drink the
wormy cocktail for 24 weeks, 72% went into remission, he says.
"These were all people that had failed to respond to
conventional treatments," he says.
There were no side effects or complications due to the therapy,
although four patients dropped out of the study when their symptoms flared up
and another withdrew due to pregnancy.
Basic Science Supports the Approach
Though Weinstock says he's confident worms will be an effective
therapy for Crohn's disease, he says there's still more work to be done.
"Other helminths might be more potent," he says.
"And we might be able to isolate the compounds in worms that are
responsible for the beneficial effect and use them to create new synthetic
James B. Lewis, MD, associate director of the Inflammatory
Disease Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says the
results are "fascinating."
The approach "resets the whole inflammatory cascade and
re-educates our immune system," he says.
However, "there are very interesting issues related to how
this product would be regulated, produced, and distributed," Lewis tells
WebMD. A synthetic or recombinant worm might be a better approach.