A couple of articles about helminths have appeared recently in the lay press that struck me for various reasons. While it’s always great to see helminth therapy getting good press, unfortunately, there tends to be misinformation printed that can often do more harm than good.
The first[i] appeared on the e-zine, Goop, a month or two ago. It was nice to see a positive interview with a healthcare practitioner (the interviewee is a chiropractor) who actively uses helminths in his practice. He gets a some things right: for example, he does give a good summary of the biome depletion paradigm. Unfortunately, he also gets a several things incorrect, the main error being this statement: “The goal is to get to a place where the patient’s immune system is regulated well enough that it is not flaring up and overreacting. Then the patient can discontinue the therapy.”
This is simply wrong. Helminths will only exert their inflammation-modulating effect when they are living in you. When you stop taking them, your body will no longer be receiving the stimulation that causes regulatory cytokine levels to go up. In a pretty short period of time, your body will revert to where it was before you took the helminths. This is why I liken helminths to omega 3s. Ensuring you have enough of this essential fatty acid helps prevent excess inflammation. You don’t take them for 3 months though and expect their benefit to then last the rest of your life!
The second article[ii] came out this month in a New Zealand based e-zine called Noted. This one actually made an interesting point that I have not read about in the past: helminths have their own microbiomes, which also may exert an influence upon our immune systems. I never really thought about that before. Another reason though simply taking one excretory product produced by a helminth to make a pharmaceutical product is unlikely to reap the same kind of benefits as simply using the living organisms. The host-helminth interaction is simply too complex to replicate artificially. The researcher interviewed for this one, Kara Filbey, seems to focus on the immunology of helminths: “…Filbey’s results suggest that living with a ‘friendly parasite’ could protect humans against infection as well as autoimmune diseases.”
Says Dr. Filbey: “Worms are amazing. They are big, multicellular organisms with their own microbiome and they have immune systems themselves, so they must be having a big effect on us.”
I took a quick look through her published work and thought this was a super interesting finding. In a 2010 paper[iii] (which, by the way, has one of my favorite helminth researchers, Dr. Rick Maizels of the University of Glasgow, as lead researcher), Dr. Filbey and her fellow scientists found that when they transferred specific regulatory B (immune) cells from mice hosting a native-to-rodents helminth (Heligmosomoides polygyus) to mice without, they also conferred protection from allergic asthma and “…autoimmune-mediated inflammatory events in the CNS [central nervous system]…” Obviously, this is an animal model, and whether or not this transfers to humans is, as yet, unknown. But I found it fascinating, nonetheless. It is yet again another confirmation of the importance of a macrobiome in immune tolerance and inflammatory regulation.
[iii] Wilson, MS, Taylor, MD, O’Gorman, MT, Balic, A, Barr, TA, Filbey, K, Anderton, SM, Maizels, RM. Helminth-induced CD19+CD23hiBcells modulate experimental allergic and autoimmune inflammation. European Journal of Immunology. 2010:40(6):1682-1696. doi: 10.1002/eji.200939721