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Worms and Allergies

By Meg Marinis, Director of Medical Research | Oct 14th, 2010
I think Cristina said it perfectly: " You eat worms?!"

That was my reaction when we started to break this story in the writers' room. WHY would anyone eat worms? Are people's allergies really that distressing? What's the matter with taking a few over-the-counter medications and carrying a box of Kleenex around for a few days? That has to be more comfortable than swallowing things that, well... things that wiggle?

But I needed to remember that not all allergy-sufferers are as lucky as I am. And asthma IS that distressing. Some people have struggled with terrible allergies and breathing difficulty since they can remember, and they find no relief with the usual medications and shots. The prospect of living allergy-free, like Mr. Fink? Many patients would jump at the opportunity.

Is this even for real?

Dr. David Pritchard, an immunologist-biologist at the University of Nottingham, was working in Papua New Guinea in the late 1980s when he made a startling discovery. He noticed that Papuans, or at least those infected with the Necator americanus hookworm, did not suffer from a variety of autoimmune-related illnesses, such as asthma and hay fever. Based on his observations and anecdotal reports, Pritchard soon developed a theory and wanted to start recruiting human participants for a clinical trial—participants who would be willing to be infected with ten hookworms each in hopes of banishing their allergies and asthma.

To help convince the British National Health Services ethics committee to allow him to conduct the experiment, Pritchard first infected himself with the hookworms. How do hookworms typically enter the body? In gross fashion. Hookworm larvae are hatched from eggs in infected people's excrement. These larvae then penetrate the skin, often through the soles of their feet. They then enter the bloodstream, travel to the heart and lungs, and are swallowed when they reach the pharynx. Once they reach the small intestine, they mature into adult worms, where they stay for years by latching onto the intestinal wall. However, rather than the larvae entering through the soles of his feet, Pritchard instead developed a way to have the worms enter through his arm. He applied a dressing to his arm, filled with pin-size hookworm larvae and then left the wrap on for several days.

Pritchard is still in the midst of his studies, hoping to publish his results in the near future. Even though the therapy technically still remains unproven, trial participants have raved about their allergy ailments disappearing. And with the word spreading, other patients do not seem content to wait. Jasper Lawrence, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has even started a business already in Mexico. His company, Autoimmune Therapies, not monitored by the Food and Drug Administration, sells parasitic worms to people hoping to treat their autoimmune conditions such as asthma, allergies, Crohn's Disease, colitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. A basic worm "inoculation"? Costs $3,900.

But didn't Mr. Fink swallow his worms?

Mr. Fink performed his experiments with a different kind of worm—he chose the Anisakis simplex worm. The Anisakis is a nematode (roundworm) parasite that may infect humans after they eat raw fish, such as sushi and sashimi.

Mr. Fink kept these worms inside of him for an insane 343 days. Usually these worms cause symptoms that begin within the first eight hours of ingestion, and patients quickly head to the doctor with abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. But Mr. Fink lived through the discomfort in order to continue with his research. And though he may have been doubled over from his stomach pain after Day 300, at least he hadn't suffered a single asthma attack for six months... Ha ha.

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