Wellington scientists say human hookworms could be answer to autoimmune diseases

It's an exciting, new frontier of medicine, yet it's looking at an animal that's been around for millions of years - worms.

We often think of worms as being a bad thing to have. But scientists in Wellington say human hookworms could be the answer to a range of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, like asthma, allergy, multiple sclerosis, coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease.

"Hookworms have been with human beings for over 10,000 years and yet in the last couple of hundred years we've got rid of them and we're seeing this sort of resurgence or increase in inflammatory diseases," says Dr Stephen Inns, from the University of Otago Wellington.

So the idea is to reintroduce them to people's guts in small doses, to see whether they can help.

"We put very small doses of the worms on a bandage and they get applied on each arm," says Mali Camberis, head of laboratories at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.

"They'll go into your bloodstream, go into your lungs, get coughed up, swallowed, go down into your intestine and set up shop there and start producing lots of eggs."

It's perhaps not for the squeamish, but they've been overwhelmed by volunteers.

"They're sort of intrigued and then fascinated that they're going to get these creatures that are going inside them," says Camberis.

The trial will explore the feasibility of using human hookworms as medication-free maintenance therapy.

"The inflammatory and autoimmune diseases are caused by your immune system attacking your body, our hope is that the hookworm will settle that immune response down," says Dr Inns.

"The hookworm's been doing that for a very long time, it survives in the human without causing too many symptoms because it's got immune mechanisms that damp down what the human immune system does, so that it doesn't get rid of the worm."

Hookworms are already being trialled on healthy patients, now they're rolling out the study to see if they can treat patients with inflammatory diseases.

"They have the potential," says director of the Malaghan Institute, Prof Graham Le Gros.

"We know in certain pre-clinical studies they can do really amazing things to stop allergy and improve gut health and stop MS, but in the human we've got to find out if the same rules apply and we just need to do the really well-grounded careful clinical studies to make sure they are safe, useful, and what diseases do they actually work in."

There's already an underground demand for hookworms, but that comes with risks.

"People are buying them on the black market, they don't know what the source is, they don't know the safety of it. Sometimes they're not actually getting human hookworms, they're getting dog hookworms which can make you very sick," says Dr Inns.

In the next few years, a dose of hookworms could be just what the doctor orders.

"It could be simpler in the end and doesn't have this high-cost medicines and drugs and things like that," says Prof Le Gros.

"We're using the power of our own bodies to make ourselves better."