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I volunteered to be infected with 50 parasitic worms for a research study (twitter.com/jimmybernot)
152 points by zdw 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 69 comments

The inverse correlation between parasitic infections and autoimmune disease is interesting and is explored in Parasitic worms and inflammatory diseases, P. Zaccone et. al. [1].

In parts of the world, for example USA, Canada, Australia, Europe, other locations, serious parasitic infection are now not common. The immune system, which co-evolved with parasites over millions of years appears to turn on our own bodies because of the lack of parasites to attack. This hypothesis (the hygiene hypothesis) is investigated in the cited paper.

I referred to serious parasitic infections above because virtually everyone host some benign parasites such as the Demodex mite, a microscopic mite that lives on our eye lashes. See [2].

Finally, let me recommend Parasite Rex... by Carl Zimmer. [3]

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1618732/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3884930/

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Parasite-Rex-Bizarre-Dangerous-Creatu...

Entirely anecdotal, I believe the immune system is already working at high capacity to stop you from becoming sick from the dozens of fungi, bacteria and viruses you come across on a daily basis.

The biggest metric I have for this is that when I am genuinely sick - with a cold or fever - it seems my body stops keeping things like HPV at bay and I start to see remnants of things like warts I haven’t seen for years start to pop up again - and of course disappear again along with the fever.

Huh, never heard of it, but it sounds interesting. So it's like the immune system has so little work these days that it turns on its own body.

By that hypothesis, willingly introducing some (preferably benign) parasite or infection would keep it busy so it doesn't attack itself?

Just thinking out in text here, I'm tired heh

It does sound absurd, but I’m fully expecting someone to try this out “in the name of health and productivity.”

Edit: Oh, it’s already happening: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25961202

I would definitely try it if I had an autoimmune disease...

Just imo, there's nothing wrong with experimenting on yourself, as long as you take the responsibility and accept the risk and possible consequences.

Hacking is not only for electromechanical things :)

This guy infected himself with hookworms, because his allergies were so bad he was desperate. He subsequently started promoting the idea, and I think was even trying to distribute hookworms for awhile.


Edit: I read a more recent article about the guy, and it said he subsequently backed off the idea after his allergies came back.

Yeah I don't know about pushing it as something that would work for everyone. That's not a good idea, as everyone is different. As a suggestion, especially for the desperate, sure, but I wouldn't go out of my way to promote it like that.

Don't forget about waiving your right to access any social safety net (disability, unemployment, medicaid/medicare costs) that might become necessary as a result of your experiments.

Sure, where do I sign?

I get what you're saying, and I agree. I would waive health/social benefits if I were allowed to experiment stuff on myself. Zero liability for the state.

Of course, that's a move only for the desperate whom the system failed over and over again. At that point, why not?

Why would that be the case? As far as I know, we don’t disqualify people for other reasons within their control.

There are numerous accounts on the internet of medical tourists trekking to Southeast Asia or Mexico to acquire helminths or similar parasitical organisms reputed to calm down the body's immune response. Specifically, sufferers of Crohn's Disease have reported relief from symptoms after taking in (via a cut in the skin, or walking barefoot in feces, or drinking contaminated water) a few helminths.[1]

Too many helminths seems to have deleterious effects, however, so there seems to be a balance that must be struck.

There is evidence that these worms affect the microbial mixture in the gut.[2]

Generally speaking, modern humans live in sterile conditions whereas we have ferocious immune systems which evolved to handle filthy conditions. The theory is, given too little work to do, some people's immune systems start to attack the self.

Anecdotally, I have an incredibly healthy daughter; we never hesitated to expose her to as many strangers as possible. "Would you like to hold our baby?" She also got mother's milk for several years (advantage of being an only child). Almost never gets sick and when she does, it's for less than 24 hours. Hopefully it stays that way :)

1. https://www.healthline.com/health/crohns-disease/hook-worms#...

2. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/parasitic-worms-may-...

> modern humans live in sterile conditions whereas we have ferocious immune systems which evolved to handle filthy conditions.

Day care centres are what their immune system is designed to fight. I’m not sure how old your daughter is, but I have never been sicker than the few years my child attended one. I work in a hospital and my wife is a teacher, so it’s not like we weren’t exposed to bugs.

No matter how clean the child care centre, kids are a Petrie dish of horrible diseases.

The thing I don't get is how does the immune system simply not "atrophy" like any other system in the body that doesn't get used?

As I understand it, our immune systems are pretty busy even under today's sanitary conditions. We're constantly fighting off bacterial and viral invaders, 24x7. But, I guess we're just not as busy as we could be.

The modern western inland diet contains a lot of wheat and other grains which have more omega-6 than omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. PUFAs are used in the synthesis of immune factors (interleukins, cytokines, ...) and this imbalance in the omega-3:omega-6 ratio causes more aggressive versions of those immune factors to be produced.

Then there’s sugar, processed food, work stress, particle emissions, microbes in indoor air... there are plenty of reasons for our immune system to attack itself.

So I keep reading reports about how hookworms are like a super cure for autoimmune disorders from allergies to Crohn's disease. Does anyone know why we can't just inject, ingest, or apply whatever it is that they emit? Like...why is there not a treatment for eczema yet better than steroid creams?

The three things that come to mind are

A) it's extremely time-consuming and difficult to capture the mechanism for how organisms act in the middle of the human body in the middle of their lifecycle when we're not even sure what we're looking for, so it's just not been found yet.

B) it might just be safe and cost-effective enough to give people worms temporarily as a treatment instead for now. (I don't know if this is the case, but if they're doing it for a study, the risk profile can't be that bad...)

C) even if we isolate whatever mechanism they have (and can synthesize it readily), it's still an immune modulator, so all the same caveats for steroid creams might apply at any significant dose.

> even if we isolate whatever mechanism they have (and can synthesize it readily), it's still an immune modulator, so all the same caveats for steroid creams might apply at any significant dose.

Sure, but it wouldn't be an infection you could spread to other people. It also wouldn't be an infection that could grow, of its own accord, to undesirable levels within you. That's a huge improvement.

I suspect any final form for a “live” treatment, would probably be a two part sort of thing. “Take worms/eggs day 1, day 2, 3 or 4 you take the anti worming drug to prevent the worms getting much of a foothold”

The pig whipworm eggs used previously for this purpose can hatch in the human body but they cannot survive, so no foothold therapy is needed. Instead, they're just enough to attract the attention of a perhaps overly-excitable immune system.

Be warned that parasites are generally pests, and in normal circumstances don't typically cause serious problems for a host.

However when crossing hosts signals can get crossed and they can cause serious health problems like eating your retina, brain, hearts, etc. Be very careful with parasites that aren't evolved for humans.

They don't usually cause serious problems for hosts they coevolved with.

Necator Americanus was always specialized to infect humans. But it evolved to infect Africans, who brought it to the new world. For blacks, it doesn't pose much of a problem. For whites, it does.

> The pig whipworm eggs used previously for this purpose can hatch in the human body but they cannot survive

If this became a routine treatment, it seems pretty likely that they'd start being able to survive.

That doesn't really follow.

For something to evolve like that you need to re-introduce the mutated strains back to the source.

If there is no re-introduction (which there wouldn't be, because the worms would be bred in an isolated environment and not the sewer system), then there isn't really anything to worry about. There is no selection pressure at the point where breeding and distribution occurs.

Why would you need to reintroduce the mutated strains back to the source? They already have a plan for migrating from one host to another host; they don't need to migrate from their host back to a lab so their laboratory-bred eggs can be intentionally introduced into another host.

You might end up with strains that could survive in humans, but those wouldn't be the strains being prescribed to people.

even if the 'gradually-evolving' process isn't provided, isn't there some genetic chance? (be it really small -- like lottery?)

The mutation would have to happen in the lab and not in the wild, since the pills would come from the lab.

I imagine if such a thing did occur, they would just kill the batch they were breeding and start over from a known strain.

(Not a microbiologist, so who knows though)


Helminthic therapy is a real thing for people with severe autoimmune issues. There are folks in the US right now walking around with relatively mild hookworm infections and substantially fewer autoimmune symptoms :)

Thank you for this. I have an autoimmune disease and welcome any and all alternative therapy options (to discuss with my doctor).

There was an episode of NPR's "This American Life" podcast in 2010 that included the story of someone who had terrible allergy problems and ended up curing that via deliberate hookworm introduction.


Because scientists don’t know exactly what the mechanism is yet. But yes, they could potentially identify the mechanism and skip the worms.

That said, Coronado Biosciences ran a pork hookworm clinical trial in the treatment of inflammatory bowel syndrome and it failed. More work needed.

Apparently you can buy "pig whipworm" (Trichuris suis) eggs and ingest them. It seems they can't survive for long in your gut (so there's no danger of an infestation), but it's long enough to trigger whatever cure / autoimmune reset it is that you're looking for.

This is just anecdotal (I know someone who did this and says that it worked) -- but please do your own research and consult a healthcare professional!!!

From what I read on the internet, in order to have benefits a human being would need to get infected with worms in childhood.

The adult in this article said his allergies went away.

Have an autoimmune condition. Medication works well but side effects are brutal.

This is huge gross factor, but if it would give me a normal life I could tolerate it.

This is a bit old but ... https://web.archive.org/web/20060701163959/http://www.kuro5h... (2006, kuro5hin)

I glad there are people willing to participate because I wouldn't be able to sleep knowing there's worms in me. Never mind the itching.

there is a not so low prob you have worms. even without itching

If gp lives in a developed country and hasn’t traveled anywhere that hookworms are prevalent, then no - the probability they have hookworms is very low.

Hookworms, maybe, but pinworms are insanely common. Yes, even in the developed world. Especially if you have kids...

...what should I do?

I remember pooping a really long worm some years ago, and taking a anti-worm medicine...

be hygenic. regurarily inspect your poop. though this is not a guarantee.

you can make a test at your gp

Did it look flat? If so you had tapeworm. Look it up on google

I'm afraid you are likely loaded with worms, even without your participation in this experiment.

Don't do this to me.

I've tried it for celiac, but it didn't work for me. There's a whole underground economy of shipping people hookworms. They claim that about 80% of people with some form of auto-immune disease get benefit. I'm glad to see that there's more research being done in this area.

Thanks for the input! Sad to hear it didn't work, but I'm glad other people are trying stuff on their own.

Favourite parasites, Copepods...

Exquisite election, nothing like a Lernaeolophus to appreciate our fine mammalian lifestyle. Nasty Necator, otherwise... yuck.

Favourite parasite museum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meguro_Parasitological_Museum I went a few years ago and it's amazing. I quite literally have the T-shirt.

Yup, parasites are really cunning life forms and often very neglected also by science. I used to be very interested by them in the past.

Since you broached this path, do not google Dracunculiasis.

Strange the study might have used a placebo group of people infected with parasites. I guess they needed to test if their process actually was effective in generating hookworm infections?

They were testing a vaccine to prevent hookworm infection. [0] After giving the experimental vaccine, they intentionally inoculated the research subjects with hookworms to measure whether the vaccine prevented hookworm infection.

[0] https://twitter.com/JimmyBernot/status/1354443850153144321

Is inoculate the right word in this context?

Yes. While today, the more common meaning of the word is "to introduce immunologically active material (such as an antibody or antigen) into especially in order to treat or prevent a disease", an older but still used meaning is "to introduce a microorganism into".

These definitions were pulled from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inoculate

The best answer to give when a coworker asks you what you did over the weekend

Interesting to me because I have experimented with various medication to find something that would work for my mental and physical problems. I think I've tried over 20 different drugs and combinations of them.

Unlike Gwern, I still haven't shared any of it because I couldn't get my grabby hands on any of the actually effective ones, not even some more effective reuptake inhibitors (like, come on, I'm not asking for much, shitty healthcare systems!).

Plus, I don't think anyone cares... but apparently some people do huh.

Surely weird flexes don't get much weirder than this.


I am disgusted but curious. This is great.

Can they enter the brain?

These ones do not. You might be thinking about pork tapeworms.

So they are chosen with that in mind. That is good.

What happens to people with narrowed arteries?

When they thought us about it in school they said that the most common problem of a severe infection is that it can cause anemia, because the adult worms feed on blood in the intestines.

It can be prevented by using shoes and not walking barefoot.

There are also other species that infect cats and dogs. In those cases what often happens when the larva encounters a human is that it can enter the skin but it can't travel further, so it only does that first part with the itching and drawing red "lines" under the skin.

Hookworms are a serious health problem in many parts of the developing world. If they manage to create a working vaccine it might be a game changer!

Weird diet flex but OK

In Stargate, when a Goa'uld (worm) takes a host they replace the immune system. Obviously fictional, but an interesting parallel.

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