Celiac sufferers newest friends: Hookworms?

A small Australian study suggests a key to soothing the symptoms of celiac disease may wriggle.

The good news: Australian researchers may have figured out a way people with celiac disease can relish the joys of gluten. The bad news: It involves hookworms—live ones, wriggling around in their bellies.

But for many with celiac disease the prospect of playing host to a bunch of worms is far less disgusting than a life without pasta.

Researchers at James Cook University ran a small, year-long study during which a dozen participants with celiac disease were infected with 20 Necator americanus (hookworm) larvae. Subjects were fed increasing amounts of gluten, beginning with one-tenth of a gram daily (a two-centimeter piece of spaghetti), gradually increasing to three grams (75 spaghetti strands).

“By the end of the trial, with worms on board, the trial subjects were eating the equivalent of a medium-sized bowl of spaghetti, with no ill effects,” James Cook University (JCU) immunologist Paul Giacomin said in a university release. “That’s a meal that would usually trigger a debilitating inflammatory response, leaving a celiac patient suffering symptoms like diarrhea, cramps and vomiting.”

The scientists think the hookworms’ inflammation-fighting power comes from proteins they secrete. They’re investigating those molecules for further research, hoping to develop a new treatment for inflammation—one that does not squirm around—to help the increasing population of celiac sufferers.

“This trial has confirmed hookworms as our choice of parasite for clinical applications,” Alex Loukas, head of the Centre for Biodiscovery and Molecular Development of Therapeutics at JCU, and joint principal investigator of the study said in the release. “But despite our growing fondness for them, we do acknowledge that a protein pill will have broader market appeal than a dose of worms.”

The study subjects found their new, squirmy friends quite appealing, however. All of them rejected the researchers’ offer of drugs that would eliminate the hookworms.

The findings were published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology and noted on sciencedaily.com.

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