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Beemer

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Helminthic Therapy [Apr. 5th, 2010|09:33 am]
Beemer
The theme on this week's This American Life was "The Enemy Within", and one bit (which I sat in the car for a few minutes to listen to) was about a guy with terrible, terrible allergies, who found out about the hygiene hypothesis, did some research, and decided that anything was better than his current situation, so he went off to Cameroon and walked barefoot near latrines and caught hookworm and, lo and behold, his allergies vanished. Completely.

It turns out there's a lot of evidence that our immune systems have evolved to cope with parasitic worms of one kind or another, so there's a regulatory benefit to having them in your system. Researchers are studying how various autoimmune disorders (allergies, asthma, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, etc.) can be significantly lessened, if not eliminated, by helminthic therapy, as it's called.

Do not, by the way, google for images of hookworms, because they are fucking terrifying.

So the question is:

Deliberately infesting yourself with a parasitic organism for the health benefits. How squicky is that?

*inarticulate shriek of horror, plus flailing*
5(10.4%)
The very idea makes me want a shower. *shudder*
4(8.3%)
That is really, really creepy. Ew. Ew ew ew!
7(14.6%)
It's... kinda gross.
5(10.4%)
I am conflicted.
15(31.2%)
That's... kinda cool, actually.
12(25.0%)
Sign me up!
0(0.0%)
LinkReply

Comments:
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[User Picture]From: goobermunch
2010-04-05 03:54 pm (UTC)
I went with #1, but that was because I'd googled hookworms before I got to your warning.

Ick, ick, ick, ick, ick, shudder, flail, shriek, ick, shriek-shuddery, ick.

--G
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[User Picture]From: ocschwar
2010-04-05 04:09 pm (UTC)
What's scarier is that hookworms are not the worst of it.

Guinea worms.
River blindness.
Bilhartsia.

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[User Picture]From: lostncove
2010-04-05 04:17 pm (UTC)
While my answer was of the showering variety, that's not to say I wouldn't buck up and do it if the health benefits were great enough. (And fucking GUARANTEED.)
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2010-04-05 04:17 pm (UTC)
So, re: Aguirre: one of the reactions from the audience last night was horror about the fact that the explorers drank directly from the river. "I can't believe they are so dumb!" one of the watchers said. "Don't they know that water has parasites?"

Without getting into the complicated history of medicine and parasites, I think the easiest way to point out this fallacy is to note they are 16C explorers. It's not like they have running taps back in Spain!

Of course, god only knows what happened to the actors in the film. But that is another subject for another time.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2010-04-05 04:19 pm (UTC)
P.S. Initially I went with 'conflicted' but I think 'gross' is a better admission. My 7th grade science teacher made us watch a film about parasites and it was the only science class---including multiple dissections---in which multiple parties threw-up.
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[User Picture]From: derbiser
2010-04-05 04:19 pm (UTC)
That is really interesting and awesome in a totally squicky sort of way. I'd heard some about this before and I find it fascinating.

I'm looking at SCIENCE to come up with some way to make this work. Some way to suppress the overactive immune system without being quite so dangerous and, well, TOTALLY squicky.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2010-04-06 05:12 am (UTC)
It's a lot more squicky than it is dangerous. I guess you have to watch out for anemia, but according to the wikipedia page on Helminthic Therapy, the potential side-effects, while sometimes unpleasant, are less severe and dangerous than things like beta-interferon and prednisone.

My thought is that the most straightforward path to making it work would just be to tweak the worms' genes to make them friendlier, so they're more symbiotic and less parasitic.

While we're at it, maybe we can reduce the squick factor by genetically engineering them to have little smiley faces...
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[User Picture]From: iridium
2010-04-05 04:20 pm (UTC)
The less-infective approach I've heard is that people take the eggs of some helminth species that doesn't use humans as a host, so that the anti-parasite branch of the immune system (Th2 cells, I think?) gets activated without having to actually have horrible worms.

And we do use another sort of distractor mechanism to treat MS (and some other autoimmune diseases), a cytokine (interferon-beta? I have turned the medical end of my brain to "simmer" for the last week) that normally gets the immune system all psyched up to deal with viral infections. ("Look! Over there! It's a pterodactyl flu virus! Go get 'em! And stop gnawing on the myelin, while you're at it.")
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[User Picture]From: derbiser
2010-04-05 04:20 pm (UTC)
This! This is awesome.
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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2010-04-05 04:42 pm (UTC)
...E.T.?
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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2010-04-05 04:45 pm (UTC)
It's appallingly gross, but then so is injecting dead things into your bloodstream with a needle.
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[User Picture]From: goobermunch
2010-04-05 09:44 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but I can't see them, and they weren't really alive to begin with.

--G
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[User Picture]From: nafe
2010-04-05 04:46 pm (UTC)
I'm with the kids who think this is cool. I'm not sure I'd advocate the hands-on approach described in your example, but if this phenomenon could be replicated in a more controlled environment, perhaps a safer and less squicky treatment could be devised.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2010-04-06 05:24 am (UTC)
Clinical trials are underway...
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[User Picture]From: detailbear
2010-04-05 05:39 pm (UTC)
I'm sort of all over the map. I wouldn't go trolling for parasites with my feet, but if it were to be helpful, I'd swallow a pill with carefully examined, identified and disinfected "somethings" in it, and hope my mental reaction didn't make me throw it back up again.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2010-04-06 05:24 am (UTC)
Yes. Exactly.
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[User Picture]From: slothel
2010-04-05 06:28 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. I have a friend who does research on parasitic worms at NIH whose partner was just diagnosed with Crohn's Disease.

He could just bring a little work home with him and fix his husband right up!
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2010-04-06 05:27 am (UTC)
Hee hee!

"So nice of you to make dinner, sweetie! Any particular reason?"

"Umm. No...?"
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[User Picture]From: musikub
2010-04-05 06:28 pm (UTC)
This makes me think about the idea of people losing weight through the use of tapeworms, which I've read about, though the science surrounding that suggests that you'd have to have supplement certain nutrients in higher doses to prevent malnutrition, and then there's the matter of removing it at some point... which puts me in the shriek of horror category.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2010-04-06 05:30 am (UTC)
There's some research that suggests that obesity may be affected by the mix of symbiotic gut flora you have that do a lot of the work digesting food for you. I wonder if in a century people might be ingesting custom bacteria bioengineered for maximum genetic compatibility...
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2010-04-05 07:37 pm (UTC)
This is very similar to the idea of medicinal use of leeches and maggots, right? I mean, not in the theory on how it helps but in the squick factor.

I know several women who developed or lost serious allergies during pregnancy. Maybe it's the same thing, but here's my suspicion: your immune system is temperamental and funny, and like any broken complex contraption sometimes it just starts working if you whack it hard enough with something. But sometimes it breaks when you to do that, too. So really, if things are going so badly that you can't imagine it getting much worse and you don't know enough about it to fix it in a deliberate way, whacking it seems like a rational choice.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2010-04-05 07:40 pm (UTC)

To be clear, though....

...the whacking solution is only a stopgap until someone, somewhere learns how the thing really works and can go in and fix it.
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[User Picture]From: earthling177
2010-04-05 08:51 pm (UTC)
I've heard of that before, but a few years back the prevailing notion was that the parasites produced stuff to disable the allergic response from the host -- which should, in principle, be similar to taking artificial antihistamines. Which is not exactly the same notion we seem to have now, which is the body needs something to fight against. In which case, beneficial bacteria/fungi (probiotics) makes more sense and it's less creepy. And yeah, hookworms are not the creepiest of the parasites, IMHO.

I've also heard another theory, which is that many people are allergic to some classes of fungi (candida being one of them), which makes their lives miserable -- the fix seems to be taking probiotics (usually acidophilus) which help us by making stuff like Vitamin B from lactose, stabilizing the pH in the gastrointestinal environment and bringing the candida population to zero or near zero, essentially making the allergies go away. It's cheap and worth trying, in my opinion, for the cost of yogurt and/or milk and acidophilus, a few weeks and one might get rid of the problem with way less fuss than the other choices.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2010-04-06 05:42 am (UTC)
I think we're starting to come to a picture of the functioning human body as an entire ecosystem, and that you have to balance a whole bunch of things against one another to keep it working optimally.
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[User Picture]From: snowninja7
2010-04-05 09:47 pm (UTC)
You know, there are less squicky ways to kick in this effect without using hookworm.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2010-04-06 05:43 am (UTC)
There are many of us for whom pregnancy is not really an option...
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