Our Little Friend of the Week: Parasites Pt. 1: The Good
~There will be photos of parasites in this post, so you know. Don’t say I didn’t tell you~
For starters, I like parasites. I have stated previous times that I’m a microbiology buff and I like all these creepy and crawly. Parasites are not exempt from this list of things that I enjoy. I have taken a Parasitology class and will be taking another one this coming semester…which, needless to say, I’m pumped about. I can’t explain my fascination with these strange creatures. I guess it’s because I like the unusual and “gross”. So, i decided that I’d blog about parasites for today. Now, parasites always get a bad rep. YES, they can be harmful to both humans and your favorite pet. But, they’re not always that bad. Just a lot of the time. So that’s not too bad right? 😉 That thought has inspired this blog post. You’ll see parasites at their best, their worst and most interesting. Since I have SO much information to cover…I’ll do it in three installments. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comments section! Now, Let’s proceed shall we?
~The Good~ aka, some reasons why they’re not THAT bad.
Reason 1: Parasites might cure autoimmune diseases. (Which is of interest to ME because I suffer from one…not that I feel I would ever use them in this way. :P)
In recent years, scientists have discovered that certain parasites have the ability to interfere with autoimmune diseases. For those who aren’t familiar with autoimmune diseases…think Crohns Disease, or a myositis…or inflammatory bowel syndrome. To be very short it’s a disease resulting arise from an inappropriate immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body. In other words, the immune system mistakes some part of the body as a pathogen and attacks its own cells. In my case, I have polymyositis. It’s an autoimmune disease where my immune system attacked my muscles as if it were a foreign invader…thus causing my muscles to become inflammed and then weakened significantly.The treatment of autoimmune diseases (at the moment…) is typically with immunosuppresion—medication which decreases the immune response.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that just anyone should go out and intentionally infect themselves with stomach worms as opposed to the current medicine available. That’s a terrible idea. But in some select cases where the benefits outweigh the costs, getting a parasite is a legitimate source of medicine.
One of the people involved in this type of parasite therapy research is gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock, who had a revelation of sorts when exploring the question of why diseases, from asthma to multiple sclerosis, are on the rise in developed countries but not in undeveloped parts of the world. Weinstock discovered a possible answer: our favorite friend, the parasite.
Weinstock’s theory — which is still being tested and has yet to been proven fully — is that there’s a direct correlation between a lack of intestinal worms and a rise in autoimmune diseases. In developed countries like the United States we’ve done an excellent job — some would say too good a job — avoiding parasitic worms, but we may be paying the price in the form of other, even more harmful diseases. We’re “too clean”, so to speak. Especially when you consider how most people, especially in the United States, feel about parasites.
Weinstock, in the early 1990s, noticed how prevalent inflammatory bowel disease had become in North America. At the same time, he realized that parasitic worms, or helminths, have a unique effect on their human hosts. Instead of inducing inflammation (the body’s normal response to invasion), they actually calm the immune system. According to the theory, because people have lived with helminths through much of history, the human immune system has evolved to fight them, and when worms are removed entirely, the body’s immune system turns against itself. Helminthic therapy, or worm therapy, may emerge as a legitimate field of medicine, but it’s still very new and few studies have been done to date. So, there’s no telling what more will come from this type of research. Who knows, maybe that could lead to (or be the) cure to autoimmune diseases. People who suffer from them, like me, can only hope. I can’t say if I’d be the first to jump the gun and TRY out a treatment like that…but if there was enough backing by scientific evidence AND (of course) test trials…I would be willing 😛
For more Information:
Reason 2: Parasites could potentially cure allergies.
Some intestinal worms are also believed to cure allergies, which share some notable characteristics with autoimmune diseases. Some people claim that our old friend the hookworm has the ability to cure everything from allergies to hay fever to asthma — but your allergies would have to be REALLY bad to knowingly infect yourself with blood-sucking worms. Though, I personally think that’s kinda cool…but I’m weird like that. A lovely gentleman named Jasper Lawrence made worm therapy for allergies famous a few years ago. Suffering from debilitating allergies and asthma, Lawrence heard about the theory that hookworms could cure allergies, so he traveled to Africa and walked around with his shoes off in several open-air latrines. After successfully contracting hookworms (and probably a lot of other things), Lawrence reported that his allergies had subsided, and he recently told the public radio program Radiolab that he hasn’t had an asthma attack or allergy symptoms since his visit to Africa. What to make of this? I wouldn’t put everything behind this JUST yet…but it’s something to think about, at least.
Unfortunately, the rest of this story doesn’t end all that well.
Convinced that hookworms are the answer to the world’s allergies and asthma, Lawrence — who isn’t a doctor — returned to North America and began shipping orders of hookworms to allergy sufferers, delivered in the form of a patch, for about $3,000 per treatment. But when the FDA caught wind of Lawrence’s little side project, he fled to Mexico and then flew to England, where he was born. Oops? I guess that wasn’t the brightest idea, bro.
Regardless, the underlying fact is that intestinal worms might provide important clues about how allergies work. Because of new research, as well as personal stories like Jasper’s, the hygiene theory, — which states that cleanliness and the lack of childhood exposure to bacteria and parasites leads to increased incidents of allergies and autoimmune diseases — is gaining wider acceptance. Several different studies are currently underway to look at how parasites like hookworms might be able to cure allergies and asthma, but nobody has definitively proven that hookworms are the answer. So again, we’ll have to see what happens in the future…if anything, that is.
Now. I hope that after reading this, you have a better appreciation for our darling little parasite friends. If not, I did try~ Now, next week, I will talk about the easiest portion of my “parasite chatter”…the bad. For every one good thing, there seems to be 10 ways parasites can screw with you 😛 Either way, I’ll see you then!