German Doctors May Soon Prescribe Parasite Eggs

iStock
iStock

People all over the world have started swallowing worms, and not because anybody dared them to do it. Now, according to Discover magazine, Germany may become one of the first countries to legalize this controversial treatment.

It’s called helminthic therapy: an intentional parasite infection that (theoretically) suppresses an overactive immune system.

For reasons scientists don’t fully understand, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions like asthma, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease are on the rise. Yet despite their prevalence, treatment options for some of these conditions are slim. After years of illness, many people reach a point where they’re willing to try anything; one study estimates that more than 7000 people have purchased parasites online to try at home.

Trials of the treatment have had mixed results. Some studies found that helminthic therapy may help people with Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis. Its efficacy in other conditions, like allergies, is less clear.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has classified helminthic therapy as an Investigational New Drug (IND). This means it can only legally be used by researchers in clinical trials. But just across the border in Mexico, there are providers and clinics specializing in the parasite treatment. Thailand has legalized helminthic therapy, too. Elsewhere, would-be consumers are out of luck.

That may soon change, as Germany’s Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety is currently considering allowing the use of a parasite called Trichuris suis. If the certification is approved [PDF], a liquid containing the worm’s eggs will be certified as a food ingredient. This particular species ordinarily infects pigs, and is short-lived in humans, a fact that proponents say should reduce or eliminate the risk of side effects.

Even if the government says helminthic therapy is safe, experts recommend using it like any other drug—that is, with medical supervision.

“Self-medication with any type of worm is not recommended,” Helena Helmby of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told New Scientist, “and it is important to remember they’re not in any way completely harmless, and may cause quite severe side effects if not monitored very carefully by a doctor.”

[h/t Discover]

How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.

A Nursing Home in China Offers Recent Grads Cheap Rent in Return for Spending Time With Seniors

iStock.com/PamelaJoeMcFarlane
iStock.com/PamelaJoeMcFarlane

One of the most overlooked problems people face as they age is isolation. Loneliness touches one-third to one-half of the elderly population, and it can have tangible effects on their physical and mental wellbeing. One retirement home in China is combating this issue by inviting young adults to keep residents company in exchange for discounted rent rates, Sixth Tone reports.

Sunshine Home, a privately run, state-funded senior living center in Hangzhou, China, welcomed about a dozen 20-somethings into the facility this past July. Costing just 300 yuan, or about $44, a month, the home is an affordable option for many recent college graduates looking to start their careers in the city. As part of the deal, they're asked to spend at least 20 hours a month with the elderly tenants, either by reading to them, chatting, showing them how to use their smartphones, or leading classes.

The arrangement is a win-win for both age groups: Young residents get an inexpensive place to live and the seniors get companionship they may not have had otherwise. Sunshine Home, which was built last year, still needs to fill about 1400 of its 2000 beds.

Most senior living facilities don't share this problem with Sunshine Home. Elderly populations are booming around the world, including in China, and many nursing home are struggling to make room for the influx of new residents. Whether the model is able to succeed on a wider scale is still to be determined, but Sunshine Home's project has received mostly positive feedback from participants so far.

Young people don't necessarily need to share a home with lonely seniors to offer them companionship. Teenagers volunteering through the California-based nonprofit Forget Me Not keep older adults company by chatting with them on the phone.

[h/t Sixth Tone]

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