People Are Infecting Themselves With Parasitic Worms as a Medical Treatment


Are intestinal worms the next probiotic? Some scientists think so. A growing body of research suggests that infection with helminths, or parasitic worms, may help balance the immune system and reduce inflammation. Some studies suggest that the use of helminths—including hookworms and whipworms—can ease the symptoms of a growing number of medical conditions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagrees. The agency has classified helminthic therapy as an Investigational New Drug (IND). The only people who can dispense INDs are researchers conducting experiments, and even they need special permission. But treatment with the parasites is legal in Mexico, and would-be hosts are crossing the border to get it.

There's clear desperation at work here: A person who is willing to intentionally infect him- or herself with intestinal worms—which affect 2 billion people worldwide and can cause a range of serious illnesses—likely believes they've already exhausted every other option.

So why would anybody do this? 

Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases are on the rise in the U.S. and other wealthy countries. With conditions like allergies, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus, a person’s body actually attacks itself. And for many of these people, existing treatment options are just not working. 

Scientists believe that the increase in autoimmune diseases is related to the increase in cleanliness and sterile environments. In order to learn to protect us from all the little nasties out there, the bacteria in our bodies have to meet those nasties. But in a world with antimicrobial hand soap in every public restroom, our bacteria aren’t meeting much of anything. In the absence of challenges, our bacterial ecosystems can get a little lopsided, with too much of certain types of organisms. And, researchers say, that imbalance can send our immune systems into a tailspin. In short, we’re too clean for our own good. 

This hygiene hypothesis, as it’s known, is also the idea behind probiotics. If we supplement our “good” bacteria, the theory goes, we may keep things in check. And some researchers believe the same could be true for helminths. Infection with the parasites activates the immune system in a way that might provide sick people with some relief.

There are a number of ways to take in the parasites. Visitors to helminth therapy clinics may be offered a shot of clear, helminth-infested liquid to drink; the worms might also be applied to their skin. When it comes to hookworms, swallowing the worms sends them quickly to the gut, where they dig in to the stomach lining and begin feeding. Worms that enter the body through the skin first have to enter the bloodstream, wind their way into the heart, and then the lungs. Because the worms irritate lung tissue, some people cough them up at this point, then swallow them again. One way or another, the worms then migrate into the small intestine, where they feed.  

Helminth therapy recipients have reported decreases in allergies, inflammation, and pain, but it's hardly instantaneous. “The use of the intestinal worms is typically not a short term solution,” notes the website of a clinic called Worm Therapy. Some people may begin to feel the effects within a few weeks. For others, it may take months or even years. And for some people, it will never work at all.

Science seems fairly split on this one. There are plenty of studies suggesting that helminth therapy can be safe and effective, but most conclude that we just don’t have enough information yet to be sure. 

Gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock has performed a number of helminth experiments on patients with Crohn’s disease. “Nobody got hurt, nobody’s eyes fell out,” Weinstock told Science Notes in 2014. “But it’s still too early to say, ‘Well golly gee, this is going to be better than apple pie.’”

The Surprising Reason Why Pen Caps Have Tiny Holes at the Top

If you’re an avid pen chewer, or even just a diehard fan of writing by hand, you’re probably well acquainted with the small hole that tops off most ballpoint pen caps, particularly those classic Bic Cristal pens. The reason it’s there has nothing to do with pen function, it turns out. As Science Alert recently reported, it’s actually designed to counter human carelessness.

Though it’s arguably unwise—not to mention unhygienic—to chomp or suck on a plastic pen cap all day, plenty of people do it, especially kids. And inevitably, that means some people end up swallowing their pen caps. Companies like Bic know this well—so they make pen caps that won’t impede breathing if they’re accidentally swallowed.

This isn’t only a Bic requirement, though the company’s Cristal pens do have particularly obvious holes. The International Organization for Standardization, a federation that sets industrial standards for 161 countries, requires it. ISO 11540 specifies that if pens must have caps, they should be designed to reduce the risk of asphyxiation if they’re swallowed.

It applies to writing instruments “which in normal or foreseeable circumstances are likely to be used by children up to the age of 14 years.” Fancy fountain pens and other writing instruments that are clearly designed for adult use don’t need to have holes in them, nor do caps that are large enough that you can’t swallow them. Any pen that could conceivably make its way into the hands of a child needs to have an air hole in the cap that provides a minimum flow of 8 liters (about 2 gallons) of air per minute, according to the standard [PDF].

Pen cap inhalation is a real danger, albeit a rare one, especially for primary school kids. A 2012 study [PDF] reported that pen caps account for somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of “foreign body aspiration,” the official term for inhaling something you’re not supposed to. Another study found that of 1280 kids (ages 6 to 14) treated between 1997 and 2007 for foreign body inhalation in Beijing, 34 had inhaled pen caps.

But the standards help keep kids alive. In that Beijing study, none of the 34 kids died, and the caps were successfully removed by doctors. That wasn’t always the case. In the UK, nine children asphyxiated due to swallowing pen caps between 1970 and 1984. After the UK adopted the international standard for air holes in pen caps, the number of deaths dropped precipitously [PDF]. Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof; in 2007, a 13-year-old in the UK died after accidentally swallowing his pen cap.

Even if you can still breathe through that little air hole, getting a smooth plastic pen cap out of your throat is no easy task for doctors. The graspers they normally use to take foreign bodies out of airways don’t always work, as that 2012 case report found, and hospitals sometimes have to employ different tools to get the stubbornly slippery caps out (in that study, they used a catheter that could work through the hole in the cap, then inflated a small balloon at the end of the catheter to pull the cap out). The procedure doesn’t exactly sound pleasant. So maybe resist the urge to put your pen cap in your mouth.

[h/t Science Alert]

Carnivorous Hammerhead Flatworms Are Invading France

It’s no hammerhead shark, but the hammerhead flatworm has become a real menace in France. Or at least a menace to earthworms, as Earther reports.

Believed to be an invasive species from Asia, the hammerhead flatworm was only recently recorded in France, as is documented in a new study (titled "Giant worms chez moi!") published in the journal PeerJ. However, based on reports, photographs, and videos sent in by citizens across the country, scientists determined the pests have gone undetected for nearly 20 years. This came as a shock, especially because the worms can measure more than a foot in length.

In recent years, three species of the carnivorous worm have quietly taken over French gardens and have even been spotted in metropolitan areas. Some species immobolize their prey with tetrodotoxin, the same powerful neurotoxin that makes pufferfish so poisonous. The worms secrete digestive enzymes, allowing them to dissolve earthworms and slugs their size.

Jean-Lou Justine, co-author of the study, says their eating habits are a concern. "Earthworms are a major component of the soil biomass and a very important element in the ecology of soils," Justine tells Earther. "Any predator which can diminish the populations of earthworms is thus a threat to soil ecology."

Archie Murchie, an entomologist who was not involved in the study, told The Washington Post that the worms will continue to spread in step with global trade. The worms were also seen in overseas French territories, including one worm with a blue-green hue that is probably a newly detected species, Murchie tells the newspaper.

[h/t Earther]


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