Can parasites prevent autoimmune diabetes?

moises-street1 A guest post by Moises Velasquez-Manoff.


Coronado Biosciences, a company seeking FDA approval for a type of medicalized parasite, recently announced the beginning of a very interesting trial on Type 1 diabetes.

Coronado is running a number of studies with a whipworm called Trichuris suis, which is native to pigs. It’s testing the parasite on several immune-mediated disorders, including Crohn’s and psoriasis. Early studies on inflammatory bowel disease showed tremendous promise.

type1The study on type 1 diabetes is particularly interesting, however, because rather than treat an existing disease, the trial will attempt to PREVENT its emergence. Prevention, obviously, is the best medicine. And one of the tantalizing but-not-yet-fully-realized promises of Darwinian medicine — of bearing in mind the ancestral environment that shaped the human organism — is that it allows for novel hypotheses as to how diseases emerge, and how to head them off entirely.

In this case, the idea is that a timely introduction of parasites could squelch an incipient autoimmune storm.

Type 1 diabetes is much more common among carriers of certain variants of the human leukocyte antigen HLA-DQ, an immune-system gene. Disease onset is predicted by the appearance of two types of self-directed antibody. But you can display one of these antibodies without yet having the disease. So the scientists running the study will know who’s on the path to developing autoimmune diabetes before it becomes overt.

And they’ll intervene with worms.

How might parasites help? Type 1 diabetes results from a breakdown of tolerance toward one’s own tissues—in this case, the insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas—and their subsequent destruction. As part of their survival mechanisms, parasites suppress the host immune system. At the cellular level, they induce a range of anti-inflammatory cells and proteins in your body. This strong anti-inflammatory signal may nudge the immune milieu toward tolerance, preventing the cascade of events that leads to autoimmune diabetes. The hope is that the attack on islet cells will never materialize.

That’s one way whipworms may help. But there’s another slightly more complex and intriguing possibility: parasites may stabilize the microbiome.

Work by P’ng Loke at NYU suggests that whipworms, which partly embed themselves in the lining of the colon, spur mucus production. No one really knows why. Perhaps it’s your body’s attempt to expel the parasites; perhaps the worms, which are thought to feed off intestinal secretions, prompt you to secrete more mucus because they’re farming you.
Whatever the case, the rebooted mucus production, Loke has found, has the bystander effect of healing lesions in ulcerative colitis, a painful inflammatory disease of the large intestine. He’s observed this phenomenon in one human, and several monkeys. Captive macaques develop spontaneous colitis much like modern humans. In both primates, the parasites sent the disease into remission.

When he monitored the microbiome of parasite-treated macaques, he noted that the intensified mucus production seemed to shift the microbiome from a diseased state back to a healthy one. Therein lies an important lesson. It’s turning out that mucus is much more than just unsightly goo; it’s a growth medium for our indigenous bacteria. When we stop producing it, we not only lose a very necessary barrier between ourselves and our microbes, we select for a different microbial community entirely, one that’s less friendly.

What does this have to do with type 1 diabetes?

In 2011, a team of Finnish and American scientists published a small but very interesting study on the “autoimmune microbiome” in type 1 diabetes.

They followed at-risk newborns for several years—kids with the diabetes-associated genotype—periodically analyzing the infants’ poo. The scientists noted that certain telltale signs PRECEDED the development of diabetes. First, autoimmune microbiomes were impoverished compared to those from children who didn’t develop the disease, suggesting that a loss of microbial diversity was pathogenic; their microbial communities were also prone to wild swings—blooms of some bacteria and declines of others—indicative of ecosystem instability. And whereas healthy children presented a microbiome that stabilized in a predictable fashion, converging over time on a seemingly preordained makeup, the autoimmune microbiome never stabilized. In ecological parlance, you might say that it never reached an apex community. It remained an impoverished ecosystem dominated by virulent, weedy species.

Why suspect this is cause not consequence? That’s always a tough question. But in rats, certain lactobacilli strains—keystone species—have been found to prevent diabetes onset in animals otherwise prone to the disease. More importantly perhaps, the scientists conducted a “metagenomic analysis” of this autoimmune microbiome. They looked at the genes present in the community, and what they did.

Compared to controls, children who developed diabetes lacked bacteria that degraded mucin, a glycoprotein abundant in mucus. They also had fewer bacteria that produced lactate and butyrate, two microbial by-products thought to be essential to gut health. These acids also prompt mucus production. (In fact, certain cells lining the colon derive their energy supply directly from resident microbes in the form of butyric acid.)

The takeaway was this: these children lacked bacteria that, through the production of lactic and butyric acid, spurred mucus production; and they didn’t have the friendly bacteria that would have been selected by a healthy mucus substrate. As a result, their gut barrier was defective. They suffered from what’s sometimes called “leaky gut.” And an overly porous intestinal barrier has been implicated in a number of autoimmune and inflammatory disorders.

The question is, can parasites stabilize this aberrant microbiome and heal the mucus barrier? And in doing so, will they prevent this autoimmune disease?

If so, I predict fireworks. Too bad we have to wait years to see.


Moises Velasquez-Manoff is author of An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases, published by Scribner.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Tim says:

    Yeah. Now let’s tell the public that they can prevent type 1 diabetes by ingesting a parasite. That sounds like a great idea. Before you go posting on the WWW and looking for publicity, why don’t you have a little more science to back all of these ridiculous claims up?? And this is coming from a type 1 diabetic, by the way.

    1. Jeff Leach says:

      No. I think you misread the post. The post is about a trial that’s starting. It explains how it might work. But it doesn’t claim, as you imply, that it does work. The trial hasn’t happened yet. So we don’t know. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease and therefore subject to the same interesting environmental triggers as other autoimmune diseases. By the way, I have a type 1 daughter – who has been so since she was a baby – so very familiar 🙂

      Also, two studies suggesting that filariasis protects against T1D in Indian subjects.

      And one of the more recent studies looking into HOW parasites protect NOD mice from T1D.

      1. Fran Kniebel says:

        Recently on APM (American Public Media – radio) they were discussing how we have become too clean as a nation. We have eradicated too much good bacteria and essential worms from our bodies. Specifically they were connecting the lack of hookworms in the human body to the increase of autoimmune diseases, specifically asthma. I’m asthmatic and I’m seriously considering hookworm therapy – if there is such a thing.

  2. adalca says:

    This is just disgusting, other than blind science, scientists who refuse to study the HUGE scientific literature showing the dietetic approach to type-1 diabetes prevention: controlled veganism (plant-based whole foods).
    Why should I put a strain on my Immune System, becoming ill now and more in the future, for the sake of avoiding another illness?!?
    It’s just: swallow some parasites which will make you ill, or just… GO VEGAN!!!

    1. Jeff Leach says:

      Thanks for the comment. Wasn’t aware there was a single study showing how a vegan diet prevents TD1. As the father of a type 1, would be curious to see those references. thx.

  3. Shelley Ronson says:

    There certainly is such a thing as hookworm therapy. I have been reading studies and discussions on helminthic therapy for 2 years now. It has been studied primarily for Ulcerative Colitis and Chrohnsv and also shows promise for allergic diseases. I am not sure how you could look at the human gut without looking at worms, humans would have always had them various stages of their lives. Suddenly eliminating them in whole populations must another reason for the change in our gut culture. They seem to mentioned so little but must be a major part of the biome picture.
    I am also seriously considering them for hay fever, allergies, asthma and chemical sensitivity. Easy to try, safe in small doses and easily eliminated if you don’t like your new house guests. I also, already eat a Paleo style (Perfect Health Diet) plant rich diet.
    Unrelated question. I have gained a good 10 kg in the last ten years, would somehow (FT anyone?) gaining some of my naturally slim husbands bowel bacteria give me better odds of losing it? happy to try this and report back if encouraged….

  4. jake says:

    well then……really do not know what to say to all of this but don’t worry live life

  5. David S says:

    There is such a thing as hookworm therapy. Not approved by the FDA. I know of a person who was ordering and treating their son who was autistic, about a year ago. They had seen signs of improvement in their son, but I lost contact with them and don’t know how the treatment has gone, or if they are still treating. They were about 2 months in to the treatment before they moved away. Interestingly I was on my way home to pick up some supplies while we were in the hospital at the time of my son’s T1D diagnosis and on the radio was a story about a doctor from the UK who was treating himself and others for asthma and allergies, and they mentioned at the time it may have benefits to T1D and MS. The story really stuck with me, but I think the stigma of infecting my son with hookworms was too great to really consider it a viable treatment for my baby, not to mention the lack of some good clinical studies. I still wonder if we had acted quickly if we could have slowed or stopped the destruction of his islet cells. I hope they move forward with studies…..

  6. Ali says:

    I actually think that is dangerous.

    I have worms. Ascaris I believe. And looking at historical symptoms I have had for years that I now know are connected to the worms, I believe I’ve had them since I was a child.

    Long before I ever became diabetic.

    They are all over my body. In my back, my pancreas, my liver, I feel the larva going up my neck, around my scalp and face, down my legs and arms, in my buttocks and groin. My left side and upper back is worm city. These things can go anywhere they please.

    The Romans called Ascaris the ‘wandering worm’ for its propensity to leave the gut and travel around the body.

    What I feel I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, if I had one. Slithering, wriggling, writhing, biting. It’s a living nightmare. Whilst they remain in the gut they are relatively benign, but if they disseminate, you can say goodbye to any peace. They never stop. And the nights, and full moon are horrendous.

    Doctors look at me as if I am an idiot. I and all the other thousands of people suffering these issues are completely on our own.

    “Have you been abroad recently?” “No, and neither’s the dog, but he can get them”.

    Even back to just two or three generations ago people would regularly de-worm themselves and their families, but who does that now? Have we suddenly become immune? They weren’t stupid. But we are…..

    Something is triggering the exponential rise in Diabetes and other diseases. Could it be parasites? Wouldn’t surprise me in the least…..

  7. Anastasia Walsh says:

    My son, who suffers from a rare ocular autoimmune disease, was recently diagnosed with the blastocystis parasite, along with dientamoeba fragilis. We have no idea how long he’s had the protozoans, or if they are a cause of his gut inflammation or just some shady, opportunistic characters who’ve set up shop in an unhealthy gut environment (I believe I inoculated him with less than healthy microbes when he was born and during breast feeding.) We got rid of the dientamoeba fragilis parasites with some hard-core herbs, and recently, out of pure desperation and having tried everything else, did a 20-day treatment of nitazoxanide in an attempt to get rid of the blasto. I wonder if we made a mistake in using the antimicrobial? I’ll know in February if the blasto is gone. Bottom line: I guess the kind of parasite is important as far as using them for a treatment goes?



  8. matt michael says:

    Some worms help, some worms don’t, some bacteria help, some bacteria don’t, some food help, some food aint really food.

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