Parasites as health helpers
Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 14, 2013 at 4:01 p.m.
Q: I have multiple sclerosis, and I heard that parasites can help fight autoimmune diseases like MS, as well as ulcerative colitis and psoriasis. I thought parasites caused disease? Can you explain?
— Joey G., Skokie, Ill.
A: Many parasites do cause trouble and can trigger blindness, muscle problems and chronic nutritional deficiencies. But one type of intestinal parasite that is rarely found in North America — helminthes — is being studied in hopes that it will aid in the development of new immune-system-regulating drugs. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has granted pig whipworm (Trichuris suis) the status of Investigational New Drug. One company has taken the protein that this parasite produces into phase II clinical trials for fighting Crohn's disease.
The hygiene hypothesis is the reason investigators are heading down this path. This hypothesis credits our runaway problem with autoimmune diseases to our scrubbed-up and sanitized Western world. It seems that when your immune system doesn't have enough work to do, after a slight provocation — possibly from a virus — it goes out of whack and mistakenly attacks your own healthy cells. Autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes and MS are a lot less common in developing countries where people's immune systems have to battle parasites, bacteria and viruses all the time. So today, scientists are trying to isolate parasite proteins that may be able to help your immune system identify and attack only invading alien cells and not cells that are your own. That's good news for you and the 20 million or more folks in North American with one (or more) of the 80 autoimmune diseases. But don't try this at home; we don't know what works and what is harmful.
Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at email@example.com.
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