‘Worm Therapy’: Could Swallowing Live Parasites Help Treat Multiple Sclerosis?

By Philip Ross on April 23, 2013 3:16 PM EDT

pig whipworm worm therapy
Researchers in Wisconsin are giving patients vials of pig whipworm, pictured, which they believe could help ease the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Could 'worm therapy,' the intentional ingestion of live parasitic worms, be useful in mitigating the symptoms of multiple sclerosis? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin think so.

BBC reports that the researchers recently treated five multiple sclerosis patients with a concoction of live pig whipworm eggs. The patients visited the lab at the university every two weeks for three months to swallow doses of 2,500 parasite eggs.

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"It tasted a little bit salty but otherwise it was just water," one patient, Jim Turk, told BBC. "I couldn't see the eggs or anything."

What's A Pig Whipworm?

A pig whipworm, or trichuris suis, is a parasite with a whip-like appearance that is found in pigs. The worm, which measures between 3 and 8 cm in length, is the second most prevalent intestinal parasite of pigs, according to a report in the Journal of Swine Health and Production.

In past studies, the worm has been linked to treating Crohn's disease, a condition in which the immune system attacks the intestines. In 2012, one Crohn's disease patient ingested whipworm eggs for three months and, according to ABC News, his symptoms faded.

ABC News reports that pig whipworms don't cause diseases in humans, and that the parasite ends up in the human gut where it can't reproduce and dies after two months. Also, should the parasite need to be killed, drugs can get rid of the worm quickly.

Could whipworms help multiple sclerosis patients like it helped the Crohn's disease patient back in 2012?

Does Worm Therapy Work?

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease of the central nervous system. While its origins are still unknown, many researchers believe MS is an autoimmune disease. Symptoms of MS can be mild to severe, and can include muscle weakness. Some patients complain of tremors, dizziness and speech impediments, according to the institute.

Symptoms of the disease usually crop up in patients between their 20s and 40s.

Worm therapy testing is still in its infancy. BBC reports that the trials haven't even reached phase 3 of testing, which is the final state required before a therapy gets the stamp of approval. But according to the researchers at the University of Wisconsin, the results of their study are promising. From BBC:

At the start of the trial, MRI scans showed patients had an average of 6.6 active lesions - scars on the protective layer around nerve cells that disrupt the transmission of electrical messages in the brain and spinal cord. By the end of the study, that number had dropped to two. Two months after discontinuing the worm treatment, the lesions rebounded to an average of 5.8.

"The beauty of this is that the number of new lesions is really an objective, brutally honest answer," Fleming says. "It's not proof, it's not definitive, but at least it's promising."

Read more from iScience Times:

Parasite In Eyeball: Contact Lens Infection Eats Girl's Eye; Are Your Lenses Safe?

Parasite In Brain? Mind Control Bug Affects 40% Of Population

Parasite Causes Suicide In Humans

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