The Worm Turns (My Stomach)

I first heard about this experimental treatment for Crohn’s disease several years ago when the University of Iowa was doing research on it. The treatment consists of exposing the patient to infestations with worms, specifically N. americanus and A. duodenale. Hookworms to me. This radio broadcast from WNYC Radio Lab contains a fascinating interview with Jasper Lawrence, the founder of Helminthic Therapies. The pertinent stuff comes in at about 30 minutes.

Jasper, a transplant from England, living in Santa Clara, suffered from severe allergies and asthma. He was hospitalized twice a year, suffered from a nagging cough, he had the dark, sunken eyed, pale complected look of a severely allergic person. While visiting his Aunt on a vacation to England, she asked if he had heard about new breakthroughs in the study of allergies and the immune system that she had heard about on a documentary on the BBC. It seems that it had been discovered that people with hookworm infections were 50% less likely to have asthma, and that other diseases like Crohn’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis were virtually non-existent in the developing world, where sanitation was, to say the least, less than optimal, and hookworm, spread by contact with human feces was prevalent. The explanation for this is that somehow the presence of hookworms in a person’s system has a dampening effect on the overactive immune systems that are bent on attacking the cells of their own body.

This sounded like a pretty good deal to Jasper so he immediately went about trying to purchase hookworms so he could infect himself. No one was selling any. It wasn’t an approved treatment and there weren’t any to be had. So, taking the matter into his own hands he spent two weeks in Cameroon on the west coast of Africa, which he describes as “the armpit of Africa,” traveling about in the bush looking for latrines to walk through barefooted. After 30 or 40 such treatments he returned home with a pretty good hookworm infestation as a souvenir. When the next allergy season rolled around, he found that his symptoms were gone.

In the early twentieth century, backed by a million dollar gift from John D. Rockefeller a commission was formed to eradicate hookworm from the U.S. The five year program had great success in wiping out the parasites and reducing the anemia and other health problems they cause. And so, isolated from hookworms in my youth, never getting the chance to dance through human shit as a lad, my immune system went nuts and started attacking my digestive system.

Jasper Lawrence decided that he would form a business treating auto-immune diseases by selling patients hookworms and the means to infect themselves. I’m not sure what those means are but I’m sure they’re fun. The treatment is still not approved by the Department of Health or the DEA or for that matter any government agency, but Jasper’s pretty upfront about that fact and his site is loaded with caveats and disclaimers, but also a number of endorsements from satisfied customers. “Thanks for  the infestation, Jasper.” The price tag for a good worm infestation: $2900. And where does Autoimmune Therapies get it’s raw material. Jasper provides all the worms needed in his own poop. Talk about pulling a business out of your butt.

I have to ask myself the question. Given the severity of my Crohn’s (not particularly severe, but certainly not pleasant) and given the cost and side effects of supporting a colony of parasitic worms in my guts, would I try this treatment? When I first heard about it, I thought, “hell yes” dish me up a platter of worm eggs! I’ll do anything to get rid of this curse. But after reading these articles, and hearing what the cost is and thinking about those squiggling little buggers sucking blood from my intestinal walls, well, maybe not. I’ve had low hemoglobin before and it’s not a fun thing, and although I get a little anemic during a long flare up, I guess I can deal with that, knowing it eventually will pass and I’ll get a nice period of remission. There’s just something about the ideal of having blood sucking worms in me that sends a shiver down my spine. So the answer is, no freakin’ way.

I’d love to hear what you think about worm therapy, autoimmune disease and bloodsucking, please leave a comment.

5 thoughts on “The Worm Turns (My Stomach)

  1. OK Bob: get ready for this—the next issue of EGT is all about microbially produced foods, yes, that’s right: microbes (as in, not “your-crobes”, OK?) So, I was thinking of you and your Crohn’s a little bit ago and I wondered if naturally leavened breads from ambient yeasts or sauerkraut, kim chee and other lacto-bacillus produced foods would help you when you are feeling symptomatic. How do your gut respond when you eat yogurt, kefir and other acidopholous rich dairy foods? Does having a bunch of active flora in your gut improve things, make them worse, no net change, or what? Anyway: who says that il’l ol’ local food magazines don’t do relevant and important stories. (I mean it’s a hell of a lot better than balloon boy, isn’t it?) Besides, we/re free–although for $2,900 we would send you a whole box of mags and all the poop you asked for…
    Hang in there,

  2. Well I don’t know if it’s lacto bacillus or what but sauerkraut, which I love, is pretty much an invitation to two days of misery. For awhile I though yogurt was the answer, but I’m not so convinced anymore.

  3. i can accept a certain level of rogue medicine, but i draw the line at the word “infestation.”

    moreso when it involves someone mailing me their poo.

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