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Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Crohn's disease, worms, and the unintended consequences of sanitation 

From the University of Iowa Hospitals comes a study that points toward new treatments for Crohn's disease, "the miserable, incurable disorder of the intestine characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fever." The Hawkeye doctors are using helminths -- intestinal worms -- to put Crohn's into remission in patients that have resisted more conventional therapies. Of course, this isn't swalling a spoonful of bubblegum medicine, dropping a pill or even suffering an injection. You have to eat worm eggs!
In the study, about three-fourths of people with Crohn's disease given pig whipworm in a popular drink went into remission, reports Joel V. Weinstock, MD, professor of gastroenterology-hepatology and director of the Center for Digestive Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City.

Crohn's disease belongs to a family of ailments including multiple sclerosis and other tough diseases -- all autoimmune disorders -- that have become far more common in the last century. It turns out that we may be living too well:
Weinstock explains that there is solid logic behind the unconventional approach.

Crohn's disease, like many other disorders, is a disease of the 20th century, he says. And one of the major differences between "now" and then is that kids no longer get worms, Weinstock says.

"Children [in developed nations] are no longer exposed to helminths," he tells WebMD. "Worms used to be around in their gastrointestinal tract, in their bloodstream."

Helminths don't just sit around, he says; they help regulate the immune system. And Crohn's disease is caused by inflammation of the small intestine -- inflammation that appears to result from an inappropriate immune response to normal gut bacteria...

"We're the only people in history who have lived without worms," Weinstock says. "So we wanted to see if giving worms could be therapeutic."

Autoimmune diseases such as Crohn's, MS and asthma have massively increased in prevalence. In most cases, we have not actually ascertained the true causes of these pathologies. Nevertheless, it is fashionable to speculate that these diseases are the consequence of human response to byproducts of industrial economies -- chemicals in materials and particulates of one substance or another in the air and water. But what if these diseases are proliferating because of the success of public sanitation? What if, as George Carlin has long suggested, our immune system needs practice?

CWCID: The TigerHawk wife, who keeps up on this sort of thing.

14 Comments:

By Blogger The Creeper, at Thu Jun 10, 08:49:00 AM:

I don't know where Weinstock grew up, but I grew up a couple of miles of the University of Iowa and I most certainly had pin worms as a chile.

Actually Jack, so did you if I remember correctly. I'm surprised you didn't mention it. Perhaps you felt that would be revealing too much, especially after the head bumps post.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Jun 10, 11:06:00 AM:

That's a damn good point. I completely forgot about those little buggers. No wonder I don't have Crohn's.  

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