Eating a parasite might be the breakthrough we need to fight Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis

Coronado Biosciences of Burlington believes it can treat Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune disorders by having patients intentionally swallow the eggs of a parasite called the pig whipworm, which then hatch into larvae in the intestinal tract.
Coronado Biosciences of Burlington believes it can treat Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune disorders by having patients intentionally swallow the eggs of a parasite called the pig whipworm, which then hatch into larvae in the intestinal tract.
Courtesy Coronado Biosciences

Keep an open mind as you read this.

Coronado Biosciences of Burlington believes it can treat Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune disorders by having patients intentionally swallow the eggs of a parasite called the pig whipworm, which then hatch into larvae in the intestinal tract.

Disgusting, right? And photographs don’t exactly make the treatment seem more appealing.

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But here’s the deal: Pig whipworm eggs are microscopic, ingested in a tasteless oral solution, and their larvae cannot survive in human hosts for more than two weeks, at which time they are mere millimeters in length. They die and exit the body, just like anything else you swallow. They will not grow into massive worms that colonize your insides and sap nutrients from your body until they kill you — or fulfill any other nightmare your imagination can dream up.

The mere presence of these tiny parasites in the body, however, could help reset an immune system gone awry by giving it an easy target.

“There is a yuck factor,” acknowledged Karin Hehenberger, Coronado’s executive vice president of scientific affairs. “But I think people are very comfortable with the fact that we’ve been living with these organisms for millions of years.”

In fact, it is only recently — and only in some parts of the world — that people have begun to live in relatively sterile environments, where their immune systems are never exposed to many parasites and germs. Coronado’s pig whipworm therapy is based on the so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” a medical theory that lack of exposure to infectious agents can actually be detrimental because it suppresses the natural development of the immune system.

In a patient with Crohn’s disease, for instance, an underdeveloped immune system wrongly attacks good bacteria, foods and other substances that are harmless or beneficial, according to the National Institutes of Health. Introducing pig whipworms, Hehenberger said, “kind of tricks the immune system into becoming stable, instead of targeting something that it shouldn’t be targeting.”

We’ll know more about the whipworm’s effectiveness when results of a phase 2 clinical trial involving 250 patients with Crohn’s disease is published in the fourth quarter of this year. Coronado also is testing its parasite therapy in patients with multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis and psoriasis, and expects to begin a type 1 diabetes trial soon.