"It is very exciting!" exclaims Dr. John Fleming, "It's the first time in the world that it's been tried in a systematic way with Multiple Sclerosis patients. So in Wisconsin, we will be ground zero."
Dr. Fleming is the lead researcher on a new study to determine whether drinking a worm potion can reduce the symptoms of MS.
"It's a clear drink, kind of like Gatorade," Fleming explains, "There are 2500 eggs in here that the patient will drink every two weeks."
The helminth or round worm eggs are harvested from pigs in Germany and purified in a sterile lab.
"This is processed extensively under all of the guidance of all the regulatory authorities so it is essentially sterile fluid except for these microscopic eggs."
The eggs hatch in the patient's intestines. They're very small, about the size of an eyelash, and in about a week they are killed by the immune system.
"The immune system at that point has a choice, it's got to go one way or the other," says Fleming, "What has been found with this particular probiotic is that it redirects the immune system from a kind of inflammatory response which we see in MS, technically a Th1 response, to an anti-inflammatory response with T regulatory cells, so it's an exact immune opposite."
The idea of drinking worm eggs may seem unappealing, but Dr. Fleming says it's not much different from the live cultures we eat in yogurt!
"We actually have trillions of organisms in us already," he says, "Part of health is thought to be do we have the right balance of all that?"
And that question is where the idea for this study was born.
In recent years, researchers have noticed a high rate of autoimmune disorders in developed countries. But in developing countries, where people are exposed to low level infections many times from worms, the rates are much lower.
"If we get a sterile environment, like we have in western countries for the last century by and large, an unintended consequence may be that the immune system develops in abnormal ways. That it may overreact against the patient's own tissues," explains Fleming.
It's called the hygiene hypothesis and it has recently been tested against inflammatory bowel disease with promising results.
"Worms and ova are not excreted by people, they don't have GI symptoms, they don't get sick and they appear to have no side effects and a benefit on their auto immune disease," says Fleming.
Plus, an observational study on the link between MS and hygiene was startling!
"Prior studies showed a 95% reduction in attack rate and new MRI lesions, which is way beyond anything we've ever seen before."
Some researchers believe the hygiene hypothesis applies to all autoimmune and atopic diseases including MS, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, food allergies, perhaps even autism.
For Dr. Fleming, this small study could mean big changes in the lives of millions of people.
"If it is positive, it shows that this finding is generalizable, maybe to all autoimmune diseases," he says, "It could possibly be a breakthrough. We have to see."
The study is set to start this summer. The only thing missing are willing participants.
But there are guidelines: you must have been diagnosed with MS in the last two years, and you cannot be on an MS specific medication.
HINT MS STUDY
For more information:
UW School of Medicine & Public Health
Phone (608) 265-6544
Pager (608) 265-7000 x5553
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Our series continues next Thursday at 10 with a story of hope... after a local woman is diagnosed with nearly 50 lesions.