Worming our way towards a Cure for M.S.?

Hot on the heels of our recent fecal transplant posting, SRxA’s Word on Health brings you news that might once again trigger your yuck factor.

According to an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal, help may be at hand, or maybe we should say “stomach” for people with multiple sclerosis – as the help is courtesy of  none other than parasitic worms.

Early safety studies conducted in the US suggest that the eggs of pig whipworms have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the size of brain lesions in MS patients. A similar trial is now under way in Denmark. And in Britain, academics at the University of Nottingham are studying the potential health benefits of hookworms.

If these trials prove successful, treatment with parasitic worms, or more correctly, helminthic therapy, could provide a simple, cheap, and controllable treatment for the debilitating condition, which affects 2.5 million people world-wide.

Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord, in which an overactive immune system attacks the nerve fibers responsible for sending signals to the rest of the body. Its symptoms include impaired vision, muscle weakness and spasm, fatigue, memory loss and depression. Although a number of medications can slow the disease’s progression, many of them have unpleasant side effects including hair loss, muscle aches, sleeplessness and flu-like symptoms.

Interest in helminthic therapy surged in 2007 with the publication of an Argentina study which showed that the progression of multiple sclerosis was much slower in patients who carried parasitic worms in their intestines than in those who didn’t. Another recently published study in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal suggested that pig whipworm is effective in treating MS symptoms.

The results are quite promising,” says John Fleming, a professor of neurology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, who led the study.

Five patients took part in the Phase 1 trial. All were newly diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS, a form of the disease in which new symptoms can appear and old ones resurface or worsen. Whipworm eggs were taken from disease-free pigs and grown in a clean laboratory environment. Every two weeks over the course of three months, the patients in the study drank 2,500 of the eggs mixed into a sports drink. The eggs hatched in the patient’s intestines and were killed by the immune system after about a week.  Patients who took part said the liquid was salty but didn’t taste or smell unpleasant.

During the study, patients underwent MRI scans, which tracked the number of new brain lesions that developed before, during and after they ingested the worm eggs.

What makes us optimistic is that brain lesions in four out of the five patients decreased over the course of the study and then rebounded after it finished,” says Dr. Fleming. While the pattern shown by the MRIs is encouraging, he adds, larger and longer studies will be needed before any definite conclusions are possible.

Researchers say the Wisconsin study’s findings could mean that the immune system’s over-response to the brain tissue was lessened by anti-inflammatory effects from the worms, and this could offer an alternative approach to treating MS.

The theory behind helmintic therapy is known as “the hygiene hypothesis.” This argues that developed countries such as the U.S., Europe and Japan have higher incidences of allergies and autoimmune diseases because the population has little or no exposure to parasites or infections. In developing countries, where people are exposed to low-level infections or infestations, the rates of such diseases are much lower.  Essentially, the proponents of this therapy argue, our immune system is created to be in balance with the worm’s influence on us.  Naturally, our body wants to fight the foreign nematode invaders, but the worms don’t like that and they’ve actually evolved to suppress our immune response to their presence.  That means that without them our immune system over-reacts to things that in its ancestral setting it would have ignored

We spoke to a friend of ours who has MS and asked, would you intentionally swallow worms if it would help control your disease? After some initial hesitation, she gave the idea the thumbs up.  “Although it sounds gross, it’s probably no worse than injecting myself every day with chemicals that I really know nothing about and which leave me looking like a pin cushion” she told us.

What about you?

Cracking the Code for the Common Cold

Medicine has been chasing the elusive cure for the common cold for many long years now.  Try as they might though, it keeps eluding them.

But maybe not for much longer, or so say researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Using sinus tissue removed during surgery they have managed to grow a recently discovered species of human rhinovirus (HRV), the most frequent cause of the common cold.

The researchers found that the virus, which is associated with up to half of all HRV infections in children, has reproductive properties that differ from those of other members of the HRV family. The accomplishments, reported in Nature Medicine on April 11, should allow antiviral compounds to be screened to see if they stop the virus from growing.

The report sheds light on HRV-C, the newest member of the HRV family. Discovered five years ago, HRV-C has been notoriously difficult to grow in standard cell cultures and, therefore, impossible to study. In addition to its major role in the common cold, HRV-C is responsible for between 50 and 80% of asthma attacks. It is a frequent cause of wheezing illnesses in infants and may be especially likely to cause asthma attacks in children. HRV infections of all kinds also can greatly worsen chronic lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Like other scientists, Yury Bochkov, a virologist at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health was unable to grow HRV-C in standard cell lines. So he turned to nasal tissue collected following sinus surgery and was surprised to find success. He grew significant amounts of two forms of HRV-C, then sequenced the complete virus genome and engineered an identical copy of it in a plasmid vector.

Studying the reproduction of the living, growing virus, he found that HRV-C replication appeared to occur in specific kinds of cells localized in nasal epithelium tissue.  “We also found that HRV-C does not attach to the two receptors that HRV-A and HRV-B use,” Bochkov says. “HRV-C uses a distinct, yet unknown, receptor that is absent or under-expressed in many cell lines.”

Future drugs emanating from this research could be especially useful for children and adults who have asthma and other lung problems.

But we’re not there yet!  In the meantime, SRxA’s Word on Health suggests we continue doing what our mothers have been telling us for years. Drink plenty of fluids, gargle with salt water and, of course, chicken soup.