A “Miracle Cure” With Scientific Promise?

I’m sure it has happened to most of us living with a chronic illness: somehow your condition comes up in conversation, usually with someone you have just met, and they offer you the miracle cure!

“You should try a gluten-free/vegan/juice diet!”

“All you need to do is exercise more!”

“You just have to get the bad bacteria out of your system” (this one happened to me)

“Eat seven gin-soaked raisins a day!” (this one happened to a friend)

When you live with a chronic condition day in and day out, these types of simplistic “cures” can be really difficult to hear, even though the people giving you this information are almost always well-meaning and just trying to help. However, most of the people offering this advice don’t really understand the science surrounding autoimmune conditions – and even fewer of them understand the realities of living with these diseases. And if curing RA really was so simple this website wouldn’t exist!

Up until recently, my favorite “miracle cure” story was the gin-soaked raisins (because at least then you get to have gin?). But a new front-runner has now emerged! I was actually offered this “cure” by the friend of a friend. It is my new favorite not only because it is completely disgusting but also because it is actually scientifically plausible!

It’s called helminthic therapy. It’s an experimental type of immunotherapy where autoimmune diseases are treated by means of deliberate infestation with helminths, which are parasitic worms. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen! To treat your autoimmune disease we are going to purposefully give you hookworms!

But here’s the thing: as disgusting as this sounds there is actually some method to this madness. While scientists are still working on a complete explanation of what role environmental factors play in autoimmune diseases, infection with parasitic worms is one possible explanation for the much lower incidence of autoimmune conditions in less developed countries. This is known as the “old friends hypothesis,” which proposes that the human immune system cannot learn to regulate itself without exposure to common pathogens like helminthes that have coevolved with people – and that modern hygienic practices deprive people of this necessary exposure.

Numerous animal studies have actually shown that helminth infestation has protected rodents against colitis, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, food allergies, and type 1 diabetes. There haven’t been very many human studies, but the ones that do exist show promise. A controlled clinical trial published in 2005 in Gastroenterology gave 52 participants with colitis 2,500 pig whipworm eggs or a placebo every two weeks for three months. Of the 29 patients who received actual parasites, 13 (44.8%) had their condition improve, as compared with only 4 (17.4%) of those who took the placebo1. Clinical trials on helminthic therapy are very difficult to arrange, however, because helminthes are live pathogens and thus have not been officially approved as therapeutic agents by any governmental agency (although the FDA has granted pig whipworm the status of Investigational New Drug).

In any event, more research is obviously needed before all of us with RA go out and start swallowing hookworms. But, in the meantime, it’s nice to be offered a “cure” that at least holds a little promise!

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