Hookworms don't just wiggle in your feet and cause extreme pain, they could solve gluten intolerance

Hookworms don't just wiggle in your feet and cause extreme pain, they could solve gluten intolerance

Hookworms don't just wiggle in your feet and cause extreme pain, they could solve gluten intolerance

Updated 7 February 2018, 17:55 AEDT

As we cringed at the tale of a woman who contracted hookworm on a beach holiday, a 60-strong research group in Cairns were infecting themselves for the sake of science.

As we cringed at the tale of a Sunshine Coast woman who contracted hookworm on a beach holiday, a 60-strong research group in Cairns were infecting themselves for the sake of science.

The woman faced swollen feet with intense itching, tinging, and she felt the worms wriggling as her medication kicked-in to rid her of the infection, thought to be contracted from animal faeces in the beach sand.

But in a study that commenced in 2015, James Cook University scientist Paul Giacomin has been farming hookworms in researchers' bodies in an attempt to find a treatment for coeliac disease.

"People noticed that a decline in the infections of hookworms and other worms in industrialised countries mirrored a rise in auto-immune diseases," Dr Giacomin said.

"The idea has been around for the last 15 years."

The study is working on assumptions that worms may secrete anti-inflammatory proteins which could be put in a pill, but first they must understand in the mechanism of how the worms suppressed an inflammatory response.

Dr Giacomin said there was no existing treatment for coeliac disease and the hookworm treatment by his team and others could be revolutionary.

Initial results of the research, which is halfway through its research phase, were promising.

A study done three years ago showed gluten sensitive patients receiving the hookworms were able to eat a bowl of pasta a day by the end of the treatment.

Bad worms come good

The sample group of 60 university researchers and staff, across Australia and New Zealand, could not feel the worms moving in the same way the Sunshine Coast woman experienced.

"Those hookworms would be different to laboratory hookworms," Dr Giacomin said.

When the worms in the trial made their way to the gastrointestinal wall a "mild tummy ache" might be experienced while the worms were establishing themselves.

"Beyond that you don't feel them. They can live up to 10 years," he said.

They also did not grow very large, unlike other worms which have been found might also assist in the treatment of diseases like coeliac.

"One centimetre is the biggest, and that's the female. The males are smaller," he said.

"With tape worm 'medication', the tape worm can grow up to a metre long."

Self infection will not spread infection

The researchers using their bodies as "farms" have had between 10 and 20 hookworms applied to their forearm in a "patch, like a band-aid".

Dr Giacomin said the patients in the trial had only noticed a small rash after the worms were applied to the skin.

The worms had "burrowed" their way in, where they hook to the intestinal wall and live a long, happy, but unproductive life.

They only multiplied outside the body, which was why they could not be transferred or grow to large numbers — as long as stools were flushed down a toilet.

"Provided a person is using a toilet they won't multiply and there is no risk of transmission," Dr Giacomin said.

And in a true circle of life, the group then provided stool samples so additional worms could be farmed in a laboratory setting for further use in the clinical trial.