There’s no doubt that some parasitic worms can cause very serious and even deadly diseases, but the effect of a worm may depend on its identity as well as its population size in the body. A team of scientists has found that some parasitic worms may actually be beneficial for our health.
Once they enter our body, many worms secrete a type of glycan, which hinders the response of the host’s immune system so that the worms can survive. Glycans are long molecules made of simple sugar molecules joined together. One parasitic worm glycan is particularly interesting because it’s an anti-inflammatory molecule. Reducing the inflammatory response in a person’s body helps to protect the parasite.
Researchers have noticed that in some countries where many people live with parasitic worms inside their bodies, inflammatory diseases are rare. According to one researcher, once people have been given medication to kill their resident worms, the incidence of inflammatory diseases increases. People who become obese suffer from widespread inflammation in their bodies and experience accompanying health problems. Researchers therefore wonder if giving obese people the worm glycan will help them.
To help answer this question the researchers fed two groups of mice a diet that was high in fat. One group was also given an anti-inflammatory worm glycan, while the other group wasn’t. Both groups gained weight. The group that didn’t receive the glycan developed problems that often accompany obesity, including a high blood cholesterol and triglyceride level and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition in which the cells no longer respond to insulin. The function of insulin is to promote glucose entry into cells, which is important because glucose is a cell’s energy source.
The mice given the glycan did become obese, but they didn’t develop the additional health problems exhibited by the mice who received no glycan. Although the glycan didn’t prevent obesity in the mice, it did prevent some potentially dangerous problems caused by obesity. The worm glycan also appears to help conditions that are unrelated to obesity. For example, it has helped mice with multiple sclerosis.
Performing research with mice is the first step towards performing clinical trials in humans. The goal is to give helpful worm glycans to people without infecting them with parasitic worms. Hopefully the human body will respond to worm glycans in the same way as the mouse body.