A New Treatment for Bowel Problems: Eating 1,000 Parasitic Worm Eggs

By Jennifer Welsh | December 2, 2010 5:09 pm

worm-eggs-101201-02Intestinal parasites might turn most people’s stomachs, but for some people suffering from ulcerative colitis, the creepy crawlies might actually reverse intestinal discomfort and symptoms. A new study found that infestation with whipworms, aka Trichuris trichiura, can ease the symptoms of an inflammatory bowel disorder, possibly by stimulating mucus production in the intestines.

Ulcerative colitis is an intestinal auto-immune disease causing inflammation and ulcers, which can bleed. Patients can either take immune-suppressing steroids (with lots of side effects), or have parts of their intestines and bowel removed to reduce symptoms.

One colitis patient, on a lone voyage to cure his bowel problems, went in search of worms after hearing about a researcher, Joel Weinstock, who believes that intestinal parasites like whipworms and hookworms can cure autoimmune diseases. In 2004 he was able to get his hands on a batch of human whipworm eggs from Thailand. He ingested 500 of them, and the eggs hatched inside him and set up shop in his intestines (want to see a picture? Beware: linked photo may make you revisit your lunch). Three months later, he downed 1,000 more eggs.

None of this was done under doctor supervision, of course, since the only kind of whipworm approved for medical testing in the United States don’t live very long in humans. After the patient has filled his bowels with worms, he contacted parasite immunologist P’ng Loke. The man allowed doctors to take a gander at his colon and track the worms and his symptoms, Loke explained to LiveScience:

“When he had colonoscopies for different reasons, we basically tried to characterize biopsies that were taken from his gut,” Loke told LiveScience. “We tried to look at these biopsies and see what kinds of immune cells were activated … what kind of genes were activated. We were trying to put together a picture of what was going on in the gut at different times.”

The patient’s symptoms decreased until he didn’t need any other treatment, though they returned in 2008 after a massive worm die off. Luckily, he was able to procure more worms and took 2,000 more eggs to replenish his supply; his symptoms once again disappeared. Somehow the worms were helping his intestines recover from the colitis, Loke explained to Scientific American:

“Ulcerative colitis is often associated with decreased mucus production and the worms seem to somehow restore mucus production…. It’s possible the mucus serves as a defensive barrier between bacteria and the gut that prevents bacteria from causing inflammation and crossing over into other tissues.”

Inflamed areas of the man’s colon weren’t producing enough mucus, but where the worms were present, the colon was awash with it. Testing of the white blood cells in the worm-infested colon regions indicated that many of these immune cells had switched from producing interlukin-17, a protein which promotes inflammation, to interlukin-22, which promotes mucus production. worm-xsection-101201-02It’s possible, the researchers say, that the switched-on mucus production is the body’s attempt to expel the worms, as well as to repair the damage the worms cause to the intestines.

Problem is, you never know what else you might get with such worms: They are known to transmit hepatitis, and are harvested from poop. They also have their own detrimental effects, since they are, after all, parasites. Until medical strains of the worm are tested for safety and efficacy, you are SOL (literally), Weinstock explains to LiveScience:

“There’s no safe way of getting exposed to it at this point,” Weinstock said. “All of these things should be done with the aid of a doctor and carefully thought through, not by indiscriminately seeking exposure.”

Related Content:
Discoblog: Are Hookworms the Next Claritin?
Discoblog: Let Them Eat Dirt! It Contains Essential Worms
80beats: Are Antibiotic-Infused Products Causing Allergies in Kids?
80beats: Let Kids Eat Dirt: Over-Cleanliness Linked to Heart Disease
DISCOVER: Breathe Easy, You’ve Got Intestinal Worms

Images: Kimberley Evason, UCSF

  • http://www.kenshim.com Toronto Massage

    That’s one crazy story. Please let us know what happened to him 3 or 5 years down the road. As dangerous as it may seem, it seems like a better alternative that having your large intestine removed and possibly being incontinent for the rest of his life

  • http://www.zeant.com Arizona Marketing

    Wow that takes a lot of GUTS to just swallow some parasites on a hunch.

  • http://thisweb bob

    this is bs

  • reid

    “After the patient has filled his bowls…” with what? Mental image I did not want.

    Lost an ‘e’ ?

  • Alan McCormick

    I can understand his willingness to try alternative therapies. My own condition improved greatly after a one month anti-yeast enzyme treatment followed by daily Lactobacillus GG pills. It took many years of experimenting to discover this and as with most diseases, there probably isn’t a “one size fits all”/magic bullet treatment for everyone.

    Joel should be applauded for getting his doc to examine the biopsies in detail. Hard data for alternative therapies is a rare find.

  • http://www.biglist.eu Directory Guy

    Interesting – though you would need to be pretty desperate to intentionally have all those worms inside you! The problem with worms though is that they can bury through your organs, and sometimes into your brain… Not sure if these worms can do this, but as the other poster above said – he needs to post an update in 3-5 years.

    Or on the other hand; I wonder what would happen if you intentionally got these worms, then killed them off every 6 months and then reinfected yourself? This might stop the bad effects – and have just a couple of weeks of pain every 6months.

  • http://opensourcehelminththerapy.org Herbert Smith

    There is no problem with these worms as they are completely harmless in small numbers – they only live in your intestines and can’t end up in any other organs or brain. Please look up necator americanus and trichuris trichiura. In small numbers there are no symptoms or side effects. You don’t need to be desperate to try – it makes a lot of sense.

  • Anthony Tripps

    It is all well and good to say someone is crazy for taking risks, but it is almost as stupid to think that by taking “medication” you are not. While I don’t necessarily agree with what he did and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t do it (however I have the luxury of being healthy, and no suffering from his condition, which may well change my mind). What I would like is for people to be as skeptical about taking “medication” as they are about other people taking worms, we might all be better off.

    e.g.
    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/12/drug-company-ghostwriters-author-work-bylined-academics-documents-show/

  • IBDMom

    I’m a former medical librarian and current professor who researches and teaches about consumer health information. My child was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at 13, so I follow news stories about UC for both professional and personal reasons. I’m writing to respond partly to the blog post itself, and partly to comment #9 by Anthony Tripps.

    The blog post paints an unnecessarily simplistic picture of a choice between steroids and surgery, presenting the helminth “option” as if it were Door Number Three. The picture is neither so bleak nor so simplistic. There are in fact five principal lines of pharmaceutical treatment–ranging from the extremely safe aminosalicylates, with very few and mild side effects, through the newer biologic therapies, which carry higher risks. However, no pharmaceutical treatment works for all patients, and between 25 and 40% of
    UC patients will eventually have to have their large intestines (colons) removed. Information about UC and Crohn’s, the other inflammatory bowel disease, can be found at http://www.ccfa.org.

    Mr Tripps, I appreciate your noting that since you have the luxury of being healthy, it’s difficult for you to completely understand the decisionmaking process that UC patients must go through. I completely agree with you that it’s important for all patients to be educated about the side effects and risks of any medication, and any surgical treatment. You need to understand, however, that when a person living with moderate to severe UC cannot keep their symptoms under control, life becomes very, very awful very, very quickly. It seems to be difficult for people who do not know about UC or Crohn’s Disease to understand that there really are diseases much, much worse than the treatments.

  • Alan McCormick

    Healthy people need to understand the dilemma UC sufferers face. Doctors are taught that the only “100% cure” for severe UC is pouch sugery. One of my previous docs put it thusly – no large intestine, no UC. The flaw in that logic is that the inflammation sometimes attacks the J-pouch and you’re back to square one except without a colon and with a large hospital bill. I didn’t like the odds I was given by the surgeon and thought I’d try and do better. My colon is still attached to my ass and I’m in far better shape than I was when I decided to set out on my cure-quest.

    I was diagnosed with severe UC in 1986. I’ve tried countless diets and pills (traditional and alternative) with varying degrees of success. I’ve used all the 5asa (except Lialda), most of the steroid family drugs including enemas and azathioprine (which nearly wrecked my dad’s liver when he took it for Crohns). If my back was against the wall, I’d certainly try the parasites before surgery.

  • L. Tuck

    I too appreciate Mr. Tripps comment about the luxury of being healthy. The choices that are presented in front of a diseased person are often unbearable. I have suffered with Crohn’s Colitis for 18 years. I remember having to take 27 pills a day to try to fight the battle to have any sort of a normal life….and sadly it is a fight in many aspects. Fight with your employer to get them to believe your symptoms, fight with insurance companies, fight with doctors to try new medications, fight with yourself over accepting your illness one day and pretending to be a normal young adult another. Then Remicade was presented to me as an option and I was so excited, but sadly I was the first person at my local hospital to have a severe anaphylactic shock reaction to the drug. I was 5’8, 107 pounds in my late 20’s and faced with the decision of trying the drug again with some pre-meds and hoping those work or possibly going code blue. I couldn’t stand my life anymore, afraid to leave the house for fear of not being near a bathroom in time; worried of losing my job; exhausted all the time; comments from people asking me if I was anorexic, had AIDS or cancer; afraid my boyfriend was getting tired of dealing with me; constant pain….so I chose the code blue risk and luckily the pre-meds worked. But those are the choices that we are faced with….so I’m not surprised at all that someone would choose to try worms to try to get any semblance of a normal life back.

    Luckily today I have gained 40 pounds and feel the most normal I have in a long time. I am on Humira injection every other week, take 4 Lialda’s a day, have cut the majority of carbs out of my diet since excess carbs in your system leads to excess inflammation and take vitamin D3 to lower inflammation.

    I wish all of you out there that suffer with this daily the best of luck and hope for a cure for all of us someday. As mentioned above there is no “one size fits all magic bullet” solution, so keep watching the research and keep trying everything.

  • Darren

    I have had Chrons since at least the age of 13. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I was diagnose correctly in the emergency room before surgery and bowel resection. I went through 17 years of being ignored. Would I consider doing something like this? Possibly, I have been extremely fortunate and have been able to avoid surgery or drugs for 20 years.

    I am still the same weight at 51 as I was in high school. Surgery/disease left me with pernicous anemia and I am dealing with trying to get B12 shots again… because, well, you know, the medical profession knows more than we do about our own symptoms and when I tell them I am tired because I haven’t had a B12 shot in almost a year because of loss of insurance, well, why don’t we run tests to determine the reasons for your fatigue… I can’t get it out of their mind that being thin and tired does not mean HIV or Hepatitis.

    With luck, I will get the shot on Monday and continue the saga or trying to deal with the medical profession to deal with what I need.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ reid: Thanks for the catch, that was indeed a typo. And thanks to all for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Richard

    I am sorry, but the worms are not a remedy I would try. They are parasites. Like all parasites they have a life and production cycle. If the worms didn’t find a way to transfer eggs and larvae to a new then it would probably not be a parasite. I would be to worried about transferring of the worms to someone else in my life, which is highly unacceptable to me.

    This is not to condone doctors for their actions nor their diagnoses in any way. Like Darren, I was misdiagnosed for several years. Luckily, though, when I went to college I was introduced to a major contributor to the knowledge database for Crohn’s Disease. He was my primary specialist for 13 years. In that time I have come to realize that the prescribed treatments are bubkis and that if you have CD or UC that YOU must take an active role in finding what works best for you. There is NOT a panacea for this condition. Lord knows I tried. Like L. Tuck, I also had a very poor response to remicade. Not only did I have an allergic reaction, but I also contracted several opportunistic diseases — like shingles, etc.

    I have now been in remission for two years. I am able to self-medicate, as needed, as I have shown my doctor that I am responsible and able. I give myself B12 injections on a weekly basis. I cannot imagine being without insurance. I consider myself one of the VERY lucky ones.

  • http://www.immunologica.co.uk Gonzalo

    I agree with Herbert,
    The usage of therapeutic helminths has been researched for many autoimmune diseases, allergy and asthma. Although more research is needed the body of evidence supporting this therapy is big. There is big research in animal models, there are also clinical trials for safety and for some autoimmune diseases.
    The therapy is also available in Europe as an alternative therapy:
    See :http://www.immunologica.co.uk

  • http://thetruthinthisworld.com Pam E

    In case you aren’t aware, and are interested, many people are completely healing, or significantly improving, illnesses such as digestive problems, crohn’s, autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis, and cancer, using non-conventional treatments. I personally have been completely healed from crohn’s this way, and my autoimmune disease is healing too. My story, and all the information I’ve learned, is at thetruthinthisworld.com.

  • Sample11

    Wtf  ? your gunns die 5-7 years after doing this. IDIOTS

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