Experts examine how molecule in parasitic worms can effectively treat autoimmune diseases

Published on August 12, 2014 at 2:16 AM · 1 Comment

Experts believe a molecule in parasitic worms could help explain why worm infections can effectively treat a range of autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The Monash University study, published in the FASEB Journal, successfully identified peptides from parasitic worms that suppress the body's immune response. Researchers believe this could pave the way for a new drug containing the peptide to provide relief from the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

Affecting as many as one in 20 Australians, autoimmune diseases occur when a person's immune system has an abnormal response against its own cells, tissues or even entire organs, resulting in inflammation and damage.

Lead researcher Professor Ray Norton from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) said experts around the world have yet to fully understand the causes of autoimmune diseases, which have risen significantly in parts of the world.

"There are more than eighty autoimmune diseases, ranging in severity from mild to life threatening in some cases. While some affect mainly one area or organ, others can affect many parts of the body," he said.

"Many people believe there's a link between the rise in autoimmune diseases and an increased focus on cleanliness in western societies, because the immune system is no longer exposed to the broad range of infections that previous generations had to deal with.

"There could be some truth to this because worm infection is virtually unheard of in developed countries, yet the incidence of autoimmune diseases is high. But in developing countries the opposite is true," Professor Norton said

The new line of research offers an alternative to helminthic therapy, where people deliberately infect themselves with parasitic worms, in an attempt to put their autoimmune disease into remission. It's thought that the worms have a calming effect on their host's immune systems in order to ensure their survival.

Rather than using worms, the research team searched for the active components responsible for immunomodulatory effects in parasitic worms. By creating a cDNA library from the anterior secretory glands of the parasitic hookworm Ancylostoma caninium, they identified a peptide called AcK1 that dampens the immune system by inhibiting a potassium channel (Kv1.3).

Researchers found that AcK1 closely resembles ShK, a peptide from a sea anemone, which has been shown to suppress autoimmune diseases and is currently in clinical trials for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Dr Sandeep Chhabra from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, said the study will help in developing new drugs to treat autoimmune diseases.

"Our research shows that it is possible to identify individual molecules responsible for this beneficial affect," he said.

"The next step will be to see if we can develop this into a pill that could dampen the immune system in people with an autoimmune disease. That's a whole lot cleaner than putting a worm in your body," Dr Chhabra said.

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Comments
  1. John Scott John Scott United Kingdom says:

    The reason we are experiencing a pandemic of autoimmune diseases in industrialised countries is that, in the last 50-100 years, we’ve got rid of the intestinal worms that had been man’s constant companions for millions of years, and on whose presence our immune systems have come to rely. If you have the wrong genetic defect, and no worms, you’re at greatly increase risk of developing an autoimmune disease, whereas someone with the same genetic defect who is hosting a few worms is far less likely to develop an autoimmune disorder.

    Unfortunately, Dr Chhabra is one of a number of researchers involved in the pharmaceutical industry who are desperately trying to extract “drugs from bugs” in order to produce lucrative medicines. Drugs, however, are not the solution to an evolutionary problem, and medicines built around single molecules are notoriously prone to produce serious, even fatal, side effects. Intestinal worms do not do this.

    As Dr David Elliott (University of Iowa) has said, “When you give someone a live worm, it’s like giving them the factory that makes the products and letting the factory do what it needs to do… Evolution has already created this thing.”

    Prof William Parker (Duke University) agrees: “The learned thinking pattern for medical professionals and biomedical researchers is to envision isolation and characterization of the individual components produced by helminths, with the goal of creating new helminth-inspired drugs to treat disease. On the one hand, this approach is consistent with the general practice of modern medicine and the common approach used to find new drugs today. On the other hand, recapitulating the effects of an integral member or members of the biome using a single or even a handful of pharmaceuticals may prove extremely difficult. Indeed, given the complex and continuous nature of the interactions between host and helminth that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, the design of therapeutics to entirely and effectively recapitulate this interaction may prove impossible.”

    In claiming that a pill is “a whole lot cleaner than putting a worm in your body” Dr Chhabra eloquently indicates the considerable distance between his own thinking and the scientific cutting edge, where it is now acknowledged that the larger organisms such as parasitic worms are essential in maintaining our bodily ecosystem.

    As Professor Roberts (Manchester University) explains: "It is like a three-legged stool - the microbes, worms and immune system regulate each other. The worms have been with us throughout our evolution and their presence, along with bacteria, in the ecosystem of the gut is important in the development of a functional immune system."
    www.manchester.ac.uk/.../?id=5841

    Readers of this article should also consider the comments of Bilbo, et. al., in ‘Reconstitution of the human biome as the most reasonable solution for epidemics of allergic and autoimmune diseases’.
    biology.duke.edu/.../Bilbo&al_2011.pdf

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
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