Can a “Worm Pill” Treat Autoimmune Diseases?

Maylin Rodriguez Paez RN

Are worms the key to treating autoimmune disease?

The idea may seem repulsive, but it’s catching on, since scientists have discovered that parasitic worms may help to balance an overactive immune system.

There are about 80-100 diseases of autoimmune origin. Autoimmune diseases affect approximately 23.5 million Americans and occur when the immune system attacks its own tissues.1

Current treatments involve powerful immune-suppressing therapies that carry a multitude of side effects. Interestingly enough, a recent study found that certain species of worms may hold the key to developing future therapies.

Peptide Suppresses the Immune System

Australian scientists identified a group of peptides from parasitic worms. They isolated one called AcK1 and tested it in culture with human and rat T cells (a special type of white blood cell).

They found that AcK1 suppressed immune function by blocking Kv1.3, a potassium channel. It also suppressed the proliferation of memory T cells, which play a special role in autoimmune reactions.2

In the future, scientists hope to isolate proteins such as AcK1 and develop medicines to treat autoimmune diseases. This is in sharp contrast to helminthic therapy which involves ingesting actual parasitic worms (which has been shown to help).

Even though advances are being made in the field of autoimmune diseases, the question remains as to their origin. What is actually causing these diseases?

Are We Too Clean For Our Own Good?

The hygiene hypothesis may help to explain the rising incidence of autoimmune diseases in developed countries.3

Since we live in a day and age where conditions are overly sanitary, (clean water, pasteurized food, vaccines, and antibiotics) our exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses has lessened considerably.

This has caused our immune system to shift in behavior. Instead of fighting infections (and being challenged), as it was designed to do, it now overreacts to stimuli.

The stimulatory part of our immune system takes over, essentially leading to autoimmune diseases. In countries with lower standards of sanitation, autoimmune diseases are less common.3

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, we don’t know what causes autoimmune disorders. Conventional drugs may help, but they don’t correct the underlying issue — immune-overstimulation.

It’s nice to see new therapies — even if this one involves worms — that focus on immune rebalancing. That is what is ultimately going to solve the issue.

References:

  1. Available at: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/autoimmune_diseases_508.pdf. Accessed August 14, 2014. 
  2. FASEB J. 2014 Jun 2. 
  3. Clin Exp Immunol. 2010 April; 160(1): 1–9.

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