Research on intestinal worms has a group of New Jersey scientists hopeful they may be close to unlocking healing powers within the disease-carrying parasites.
The parasites under the microscope — hookworms that infect more than 700 million humans, largely in developing countries — could potentially be useful in treating lung disease and wounds, according to a new study published by researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School.
The study, led by Dr. William Gause, identifies an immune response when the hookworm attacks the lungs — so-called repair mechanisms known as Th2-type response. The discovery could yield new treatments for pneumonia and injuries.
“We have been able to show that this parasite-induced Th2-type response can actually help promote tissue repair, and we identified some contributing factors that are playing an important role in mediating and enhancing the wound-healing process,” Gause said.
Intestinal worms damage the body in a variety of ways, depending on the type of worm and the severity and length of infestation. Many parasites are more common in poorer, tropical countries, but parasitic infections also affect people in developed countries, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They most often enter the body when a person eats undercooked meat, drinks contaminated water, or comes into contact with soil that contains worm eggs.
The UMDNJ research team focused on the intestinal worm Nippostrongylus brasiliensis, a nematode that is used as an experimental model for hookworm infections. The worm passes through the lungs on the way to the intestines, and while in the lungs, it causes tissue damage and inflammation.
“These worms can often migrate from one organ to the next,” Gause said. “As they migrate through the lung they can cause considerable tissue damage resulting in lung injury.”
The researchers also found that the Th2 immune response — in addition to triggering the body to attack the parasitic worm — “also triggers a number of rapid repair mechanisms” to mitigate the damage to the lungs caused by the worm as it migrates through the body’s tissues,” Gause said.
“We have been able to show that this parasite-induced Th2-type response can actually help promote tissue repair, and we identified some contributing factors that are playing an important role in mediating and enhancing the wound healing process,” Gause said.
Gause’s research opens possibilities that the Th2-type immune response might yield new treatments for lungs damaged by diseases like pneumonia, or to promote the healing of wounds on the body’s surface.
“Is it possible that we could isolate a product from this parasite,” Gause asks, “that is capable of triggering the Th2-type immune response, which would then result in the production of these various factors that can accelerate the wound healing process? The trick there would be to identify these various parasite products.”
The next step is to “figure out how the parasite does this. How has the host evolved to be able to recognize the parasite and as a result of that, to induce this response to enhance wound healing?”
Gause said his team has found that certain cell populations and immune proteins that are elicited by the Th2-type immune response “are produced at high levels that you don’t typically see in classical wound healing. More research is needed to see if and how the Th2-type immune response is accelerating the wound healing process. For starters, in what ways might it differ from classical wound healing? That is something we’re not clear on right now.”
The study has been published online, in advance of publication in Nature Medicine.