It might sound creepy, but researchers are investigating if parasitic worms could be the key to halting the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS) - an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack its own nerve cells.
Autoimmune diseases can manifest as ailments such as allergies and coeliac disease, or can develop into debilitating illnesses like lupus and MS, and develop when the immune system starts attacking something it shouldn't, such as your own healthy cells.
That's strange enough on its own, but the solution to these kinds of immune diseases might be even stranger. One of the most promising ideas scientists are currently looking into is the use of parasitic worms to hijack patients' immune systems, and reduce the symptoms of everything from gluten intolerance, to inflammatory bowel disease.
Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia are now investigating whether these worms could be used to effectively calm down our immune responses, and prevent diseases like MS from developing in the first place.
"We are trying to stop the progression of the disease. Our goal is to develop a treatment, which if delivered at diagnosis would stop or slow down the clinical progression to severe disability that occurs in people with MS," said lead researcher, Sheila Donnelly.
While the mechanism behind MS isn't fully understood, it's thought that the immune system turns against the fatty white layer (or myelin) covering the nerve cells, destroying their protective coating and damaging the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves in the process. The more myelin that's destroyed, the more debilitating the symptoms become.
But how do parasitic worms help? The research is still in the early phases, but Donnelly and her team think it's all about self-preservation on the worm's part. Parasitic worms live in and feed on the living hosts - AKA the patients - so they want to be as unobtrusive as possible.
To do this, they're able to manipulate a patient's immune response by secreting special immune system-modifying compounds.
These compounds prevent the immune system from freaking out about them being there, and at the same time, also stop the immune system from freaking out about other harmless things too – like gluten, pollen, or myelin around our nerve cells.
"To prevent tissue damage as they migrate through their human hosts, parasitic worms secrete molecules which dampen excessive inflammation," said Donnelly. "We are using those same molecules to switch off the inflammatory response that mediates diseases like MS."
While previous studies have shown how worms can mitigate the immune response by infecting patients with the live animals themselves, this new study hopes to use compounds extracted from the worms instead, which could have more predictable results (and would probably be more easy for the patients to swallow).
The UTS team, in a collaboration with Judith Greer from the University of Queensland, is going to use a mouse model of relapsing remitting MS to test this compound, and if all goes well, they hope to take it clinical trials.
"We have identified a single molecule, secreted by a helminth parasite, which reduces the incidence and severity of disease in a mouse model of MS. Here we will determine the mechanisms by which this protection is achieved," said Donnelly in a statement about the new project.
"Results obtained will support the development of novel strategies to inhibit progression of MS, with potential for development of new therapeutic drugs."
This research has just received a grant from MS Research Australia to take the research to preclinical trials.
"This important project is working towards a better treatment option for the 23,000 people living with MS in Australia and over 2.3 million around the world," said Matthew Miles, the CEO of MS Research Australia.