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SuSanA Secretariat via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
SuSanA Secretariat via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Parasitic Worms May Keep Inflammatory Bowel Disease at Bay

SuSanA Secretariat via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
SuSanA Secretariat via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Scientists say people infected with parasitic worms may be better able to fend off autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Their study shows that the infection changes the balance of bacteria in a person’s gut, overpowering the species that cause inflammation. The findings were published last week in the journal Science.

In many ways, human beings are healthier than we’ve ever been before. In other ways … not so much. The lifespan of the average American is longer than ever, but that long life is also more likely to be marked with chronic illness. Among medical conditions on the rise are autoimmune diseases like allergies, type one diabetes, and IBD. Scientists have theorized that the increase in autoimmune diseases may be influenced by our relatively sterile way of life. This hygiene hypothesis, as it’s known, posits that some exposure to germs is good for our immune systems. Without this exposure, our immune systems essentially short-circuit, leaving us vulnerable.

If hand sanitizer and antibiotics are the problem, some people say that worms may be the answer. Experiments have found helminth therapy (as it's called) may help celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease, a form of IBD. Still, researchers have been cautious. “Nobody got hurt, nobody’s eyes fell out,” gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock told Science News in 2014. “But it’s still too early to say, ‘Well golly gee, this is going to be better than apple pie.’”

Apple pie or no, some Americans with chronic conditions can’t stand to wait, and are already intentionally infecting themselves with worms. One man found the treatment so effective that he felt he had to alert parasitologist P’ng Loke.

“I was contacted by an individual who had deliberately infected himself with worms to treat his symptoms of IBD and was able to put his disease into remission,” Loke said in a recorded interview. Loke and his colleagues wondered what, exactly, the worms were doing and how it could be helpful. They suspected that the infection might cause a person’s gut bacteria to re-balance, thereby overpowering the Bacteroides, a genus of “bad” bacteria that can lead to bowel inflammation.

The researchers bred mice that would carry a gene associated with immune conditions, including IBD. They then infected the mice with juvenile whipworms. After the worms had matured, the scientists took bacteria samples from the rodents’ poop and intestines. Sure enough, they found decreased levels of Bacteriodes and increased levels of Clostridia—a species that can reduce inflammation. Helminth infection had swung the bacterial balance in a more constructive direction.

To be sure that these effects were not just a mouse thing, the researchers also tested the gut bacteria of two groups of people in Malaysia: people from a rural area known for having low rates of IBD and high rates of worm infection, and people from a nearby city, for whom the IBD/worm situation was reversed. Once again, the results revealed that the immune response triggered by worm infection seemed to defend the bacterial ecosystem against Bacteroides inflammation.

“Patient testimonials and anecdotes lead many to think that worms directly cure IBD, senior investigator Ken Caldwell said in a press statement, “while in reality, they act on the gut bacteria thought to cause the disease.”

Caldwell and his colleagues believe their findings offer a concrete explanation that may help lead to relief for patients. “Our study could change how scientists and physicians think about treating IBD.”

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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