Can a Hookworm Make You Healthy?

by Brian on April 22, 2010

in In the News

Can a hookworm make you healthy? Jasper Lawrence seems to think so. And now his special therapeutic worm treatment is available for shipment to Israel.

I first heard about Lawrence and his worms when they were featured on an episode of WNYC’s Radio Lab (which was rebroadcast last week on This American Life – one of the most popular podcasts available on iTunes). Lawrence had been suffering from asthma and allergies that were so debilitating that he could barely step outside.

Lawrence began to study his condition and discovered some fascinating research going on about parasites. We’ve all been taught that worms in the gut is a bad thing, leading to a whole range of illnesses, some quite serious (ask anyone who’s picked up a nasty bug in India).

But some worms may actually be good for us. A particular type, called helminths (specifically hookworms and whipworms), apparently calms down inflammation rather than induces it. Joel Weinstock, a gastroenterologist in Iowa, did much of the pioneering research in the early 1990s.

The story gets kind of yucky from here. Lawrence traveled to Africa and began stomping around barefoot in public latrines. Eventually he picked up the worm he wanted and, lo and behold, he was cured of his allergies.

Dr. Weinstock’s work was originally conducted to understand why instances of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) have increased so rapidly in the last century. His conclusion, according to The New York Times:

“After a long co-evolution, the human immune system came to depend on the worms for proper functioning. When cleaner conditions and new medicines evicted the worms from our bodies, the immune system went out of kilter.”

As someone who suffers from the IBD condition of Crohn’s Disease, I know that the traditional treatments of steroids and surgery are highly intrusive and don’t work all that well. Weinstock says he has seen remarkable remission rates with worm “re-infestation.”

So where does Israel fit into the picture (other than the fact that Jews tend to be more prone to inflammatory bowel diseases)?

After allergy suffering Jasper Lawrence’s remarkable turn-around, he set up a company to harvest and sell worms to fellow sufferers. The U.S. FDA promptly shut him down and out of the North American market. But, as Lawrence wrote to me in a personal email, you can get his therapeutic worms here in Israel.

Helminth worm treatment reportedly works with other auto-immune ailments beyond IBD including celiac disease, psoriasis and MLS. There’s one big downside: treatment from Lawrence’s company starts at about $3,000. And you have to keep re-infesting yourself – it’s not a one time hit. And – no, don’t even ask – it’s definitely not covered by the local kuppot (Israeli HMOs).

My Crohn’s is mostly quiet these days. But if it heated up again and I were facing down another round of prednisone and pain, I’d seriously consider swallowing a cocktail of worm eggs.

More information at Lawrence’s website:

I originally wrote about therapeutic worms for the Israelity blog.

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