The fight against multiple sclerosis has found an unexpected ally—parasitic worms. Researchers in the United States and Denmark are looking into the eggs of pig whipworms, which can reduce the size of the MS brain lesions and the effects of the disease, while doctors in the UK are studying hookworms, reports the Wall Street Journal. With the market for MS drugs reaching $12.6 billion last year, a cheap and natural alternative therapy with fewer side-effects would be welcome for the 2.5 million MS sufferers around the world.
MS is caused by an overactive immune system, which attacks the nerve fibers; researchers think the parasites have an anti-inflammatory effect, lessening the immune system's overreaction. Patients drink whipworm eggs 2,500 at a time, mixed in with an energy drink; the body's immune system naturally kills the parasites after a week. "It was like drinking a shot of salty water—you didn't notice the worms. It wasn't like there was anything chunky in it," said one test patient. For hookworms, on the other hand, the parasite must burrow through the skin and make their way to the intestines naturally. "We have worked with this parasite for decades, so we understand its biology," explained the lead researcher. Phase 2 trials for both parasites are beginning now, and results will not be ready for at least 18 months.