A pig parasite may be the next big thing in treating autoimmune disease
flickr photo by treehouse1977
For thousands of people in the United States who suffer from one debilitating disorder, a pig might have just become their unexpected best friend.
In the past, I’ve written about how researchers look to the animal world for answers in their quest to unravel medical mysteries and to help address health issues in humans.
A specific area of human health that’s of great interest to patients and researchers alike — autoimmune disease — has been vigorously studied because of the breadth of its reach.
Rheumatoid arthritis, Addison’s disease, psoriasis and other diseases in this class affect millions of Americans and are often debilitating. Drugs therapies are available, and they act by depressing the immune system.
Patients with Crohn’s disease may have a new option when it comes to treating the disease, which affects the gastrointestinal system: a pig parasite.
A team at Coronado Biosciences Inc. in Massachusetts is readying a clinical trial that will include more than 200 patients with Crohn’s disease. Those who are participating will get a dose with 7,500 eggs from a pig whipworm or a placebo once every two weeks for a period of 12 weeks.
The same eggs that live in a pig’s body and grow into mature whipworms barely survive 14 days in humans. However, in that two-week period, the eggs appear to adjust a patient's immune system and prevent it from attacking the body's own tissues and organs.
Autoimmune disease has been linked to the hygiene hypothesis, a proposed explanation for the increasing incidence of allergies and asthma in developed countries. For instance in our own country, the addiction to cleanliness, antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers has helped to precipitate the rise in autoimmune disease.
This type of treatment, referred to as helminthic therapy, is not isolated to whipworms. Hookworms have been used to address other autoimmune diseases.
Researchers are excited because besides treating Crohn’s, the treatment — called trichuris suis ova — may have a secondary benefit.
"It has the potential not only to be a drug but to provide insight into the cause of these diseases," said Dr. Joel Weinstock, chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Boston’s Tufts-New England Medical Center, who is also an advisor to Coronado.
Patients may find using TSO more favorable despite its origin for good reason: immunosuppressive drugs raise one’s risk of infection, a dangerous aspect of treatment.
"With the pig whipworm, there is no permanent infection, no real possible side effects," indicates Bobby Sandage Jr., chief executive officer of Coronado.
The drug is already being tested in patients with multiple sclerosis.
Each dose of TSO consists of thousands of microscopic parasite eggs, collected from pig feces, suspended in a tablespoon of saline solution and taken orally.
What other knowledge and benefits will be discovered from the animal world? Who knows.