When investigating different kinds of possible treatments for Multiple Sclerosis (MS), I came across something called 'Helminthic Therapy'. If, like me, you know someone with MS, you may want to bring this to his/her attention. However, when doing this, proceed with caution: as you'll find out below, it may be a rather sensitive subject.
What is it?
Helminthic therapy is the deliberate use of so-called helminths. This probably doesn't make things much more clear, so let me add that helminths are a type of parasitic worm.
This is of course why it may be a tad difficult to talk to someone about. The idea of infecting yourself with parasites which, depending on the type, may even live inside you for a number years, obviously has a rather large yuck-factor.
Why would someone do this?
This has to do with the hygiene hypothesis or perhaps even more with the old friends hypothesis. The hygiene hypothesis basically says that we're leading a much too clean life. We don't come into contact with enough health hazards anymore and this can cause people to have immune systems that really aren't well trained, and misbehave on occasion. In turn, this may result in things ranging from allergies to autoimmune diseases.
According to the old friends hypothesis, until recently mankind has always had to deal with the presence of several kinds of parasites. Throughout history these old friends have evolved alongside us, and this means that our immune systems may have evolved to be able to work just right when these parasites are present. Of course, we've become much cleaner in the last century, and hosting parasites is a thing from the past. However, since our immune system was expected to work right when they are in fact present, it may be that without these old friends, it just doesn't work that well in some cases. Like in the hygiene hypothesis, this could then again lead to allergies or even autoimmune diseases.
It is for these reasons that people with severe allergies or with an autoimmune disease for example, are trying helminthic therapy. By reintroducing parasites into their bodies, they hope to restore the balance and obtain an immune system that works better.
That this helminthic therapy may indeed be helpful for people with MS, is hinted at by two very interesting articles by Correale and Farez. The first article is called Association between parasite infection and immune responses in multiple sclerosis, which was published in 2007. In this article, the authors studied a group of twelve MS-patients, which at a certain point accidentally got infected with some type of parasite. They were monitored for almost five years, and compared to a similar but uninfected group of MS-patients, apparently their MS evolved much more slowly. The infected group had much less additional brain lesions and stayed at more or less the same physical disability level.
Given the fact that the infections were accidental, with no control about the number and type of parasites, it may come as no surprise that for a few people the side effects of the infection became too much, and treatment was necessary. The 2011 article The impact of parasite infections on the course of multiple sclerosis studies four people from the original group which were given medications to remove the parasites from their system. It turns out that in these four people, the MS progression again became the same as in uninfected MS'ers.
Since the MS progression slowed down considerably when these people were infected and resumed when they were treated, in my opinion this shows (even though the groups were very small) that there is a link between parasite presence and the rate of disease progression.
Is this safe?
The organisms used in helminthic therapy can be considered quite safe. Currently, three helminth species are used:
- Eggs of Trichuris Suis (also called Trichuris Suis Ova or TSO)
- Trichuris Trichiura
- Necator Americanus
These species are used because they don't procreate within the host. Once you get a number of these parasites, their number will not accidentally increase.
The number of parasites used in this kind of therapy is low compared to accidental infections which occur in nature. This way, a balance is sought between beneficial effects on the immune system, and uncomfortable side effects on the gastrointestinal system. Everyone is different of course, and unfortunately there's no way to predict if a certain number will cause benefits or will cause physical discomfort.
Stopping the therapy is quite easy with these organisms. Taking specific medications for a few days is sufficient to eliminate them from your body.
Some useful sources of information:
Providers of helminthic therapy: