Humble Hookworms – Your Friend or Foe?

Research being undertaken right here in Canterbury and supported by the Gut Foundation is finding the answer to this question

The thought of having hookworms in your intestines may be difficult for some people to swallow but a new collaborative study performed between researchers in Christchurch and Australia asked people with coeliac disease to do just that. Research funded by the Bowel and Liver Trust has previously showed high rates of coeliac disease in Canterbury with 1/84 Cantabrians being affected. The disease is caused by an immune reaction to gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, oats and rye), which leads to permanent damage to the lining of the small intestine due to inflammation. This damage reduces the surface area of the small intestine, leading to reduced absorption of nutrients and gastrointestinal symptoms. The treatment of coeliac disease is almost always successful but requires patients to remove all gluten containing foods from the diet. This can lead to a significant reduction in quality of life for people who are affected.

it seems that these parasitic worms produce molecules beneficial to gut flora in people suffering from inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. It’s called worm-induced immune modulation and,  it could be a global game-changer.

Professor Richard Gearry is a leading gastroenterologist based in Christchurch and has been instrumental in the trans-Tasman collaboration, both clinically, and as a member of the Gut Foundation.

He says a recent open-label proof-of-principle clinical trial in Melbourne showed infections with low numbers of Hookworms were safe and enabled people with Coeliac Disease to tolerate eating a medium sized bowl of pasta with no ill-effects.

That’s an incredible finding.  The established protocol for managing Coeliac Disease is a gluten-free diet.  But it doesn’t always alleviate the symptoms, plus it is expensive, inconvenient, and inadvertent gluten exposure is common.

For trial participants, the thought of a bowl of pasta without the health repercussions was enough to tolerate the deliberate infection of Hookworms.

The next step is to identify the molecules that induce immunomodulation with a view to developing a medication.  Larger placebo-controlled clinical trials are required and the Bowel and Liver Trust is committed to fundraising to support this ground-breaking research

Did you know?

  • 1 in 80 New Zealanders have Coeliac’s Disease.
  • New Zealand has one of the highest rates of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s Disease/ulcerative colitis) in the world, mainly affecting people 15-35yrs.
  • More than 3,500 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in NZ.
  • A 2014 research study showed the incidence of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) increased by 50% over a ten-year period in Canterbury alone.

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