Hookworms, Allergies & Asthma

In recent weeks a friend has been suffering a severe bout of asthma. With him in mind I perked up when I heard the story of Jasper Lawrence — “a modern-day entrepreneur whose passion for hookworms stems from lifelong battles with allergies and asthma” — in this fascinating Radio Lab hour on parasites.

Lawrence believes he has been able to keep his asthma and severe allergies in complete check through the use of hookworms as a Helminthic therapy. He now harvests hookworms from himself and sells them as a treatment for others.

He tells the Radio Lab folks that he learned of the arcane treatment while in Britain watching “Bodysnatchers,” a BBC documentary produced in 2003. Its thesis, Eat worms – feel better:

Before gut worms were eradicated in the West 50 or so years ago allergies – caused by the overreaction of the immune system – were virtually unheard of, now in the UK one third of us suffers from some sort of allergy.

So scientists are looking to see if there’s a connection between gut worms and allergies, they are wondering if gut worms can somehow damp down the immune system to make it easier for them to live in the intestine without coming under attack.

Here a 2001 report on a study, conducted principally at the University of Nottingham and Jimma University in Ethiopia, published in the medical journal The Lancet:

Dr Sarah Scrivener, from Nottingham University said: “They may block the allergy response which causes asthma.

“Some kinds of hookworm secrete proteins which can damp down the immune response.”

The finding has implications in two areas – firstly, for investigators looking for new drugs which may help people control asthma, and secondly, for the worm-eradication programmes being undertaken in many parts of the world.

Hookworm infestation is certainly a contributor to ill-health in many parts of the globe.

The Gates Foundation – founded by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and his wife Melinda – has donated $18m to the Sabin Vaccine Foundation in an effort to produce a hookworm vaccine.

However, researchers have warned that eradication of worms may mean an upsurge in asthma, particularly in urban areas.

Rates of asthma in developed countries are far higher than those in developing countries, and scientists are still trying to work out all the reasons why.

I will be passing this on to my friend to investigate further. An organic gardener who is no stranger to worms, I’ll let you know if he finds something of interest.