EAST LANSING, Mich. – The upside of Linda Mansfield’s research is that it may lead to a new treatment for inflammatory bowel disease. The downside is that it would involve swallowing worm eggs. Mansfield is a professor of microbiology at Michigan State University who specializes in the study of parasites.
She’s also one of several researchers around the country looking at the use of threadlike intestinal parasites called whipworms to treat the disease, which can cause diarrhea, painful cramps and even intestinal bleeding.
“It’s extremely debilitating,” Mansfield told the Lansing State Journal for a story Friday. “People talk about having 256 bouts of diarrhea a year when they have this disease. It gets to the level where some of them are not able to work.”
Inflammatory bowel disease, the most common forms of which are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is a condition that is virtually unknown in the developing world. But it is becoming increasingly common in industrialized countries.
Researchers have put forward several explanations for that, among them diets high in fat and refined foods. But another possible cause, Mansfield said, is increasing levels of hygiene.
Portions of the immune system actually require periodic infections in order to develop properly. Some exposure to dirt, bacteria and even worms can be beneficial.
“By living in an ultra-clean environment,” Mansfield said, “we’re removing some of the things that helped to educate our immune system.”
Mansfield said it’s possible that the human immune system developed in a way that’s reliant, to some degree, on the presence of parasitic worms.