We're a little crazy, about science!

New Hope for Autoimmune Diseases


Autoimmune diseases are on the rise. Since I have a history of over sharing, my Uncle suffered from a form of lupus. It caused him intense and — in my opinion — unbearable pain although he shouldered it like the incredible man he was and never complained. My sister unfortunately is suffering from a rare disease that has yet to be diagnosed, which in my opinion has autoimmune dysfunction as the root cause. If you or anyone you know suffers in a similar fashion then you know that the treatments for such things are, expensive, moderately effective at best, and are overall inadequate.

Then again, since I have a stake in the research I am a little bias when it comes to current treatments and their shortcomings. With a little luck that will change however all thanks to some new research. That research suggests that a molecule in parasitic worms could help explain why worm infections can effectively treat a range of autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and thankfully lupus.

Thankfully the researchers have now successfully identified peptides from parasitic worms that suppress the body’s immune response. They believe that these peptides could pave the way for new and better drugs to provide relief from the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

The National Institute of Health [or NIH] estimates up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease and that the prevalence is sadly rising, autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s immune system has an abnormal response against its own cells, tissues or even entire organs, resulting in inflammation and damage. Currently there is no cure and very little in the way of treatments other than managing the symptoms.

Lead researcher Professor Ray Norton from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences [MIPS] says experts around the world have yet to fully understand the causes of autoimmune diseases, which have recently risen significantly in parts of the world.

“There are more than eighty autoimmune diseases, ranging in severity from mild to life threatening in some cases. While some affect mainly one area or organ, others can affect many parts of the body,” he said.“Many people believe there’s a link between the rise in autoimmune diseases and an increased focus on cleanliness in western societies, because the immune system is no longer exposed to the broad range of infections that previous generations had to deal with.

“There could be some truth to this because worm infection is virtually unheard of in developed countries, yet the incidence of autoimmune diseases is high. But in developing countries the opposite is true,” Professor Norton said

This new line of research offers an alternative to the [seemingly] archaic helminthic therapy, a treatment where people deliberately infect themselves with parasitic worms, in an attempt to put their autoimmune disease into remission. It’s thought that the worms have a calming effect on their host’s immune systems in order to ensure their [the parasite’s] survival.

Rather than using these worms [thankfully], the research team searched for the active components responsible for immunomodulatory effects in parasitic worms. By creating a cDNA library from the anterior secretory glands of the parasitic hookworm Ancylostoma caninum, they identified a peptide called AcK1 that dampens the immune system by inhibiting a potassium channel [ for those interested it is Kv1.3].

Researchers found that AcK1 closely resembles ShK, a peptide from a sea anemone, which has been shown to suppress autoimmune diseases. Right now that particular peptide is  in clinical trials for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Dr Sandeep Chhabra from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, said the study will help in developing new drugs to treat autoimmune diseases.

“Our research shows that it is possible to identify individual molecules responsible for this beneficial effect,” Dr Chhabra said, “The next step will be to see if we can develop this into a pill that could dampen the immune system in people with an autoimmune disease. That’s a whole lot cleaner than putting a worm in your body.”

Clinical trials for this new drug should be starting soon, unfortunately for us in the US it will probably be a while before we see anything from it. I wish I could end this on more of a happy note, I really do. Autoimmune diseases are horrid and like any chronic disease it needs to be dealt with to the fullest extent science can muster, at least in my opinion.

Want more? You can find the full study –here!

Chhabra S, Chang SC, Nguyen HM, Huq R, Tanner MR, Londono LM, Estrada R, Dhawan V, Chauhan S, Upadhyay SK, Gindin M, Hotez PJ, Valenzuela JG, Mohanty B, Swarbrick JD, Wulff H, Iadonato SP, Gutman GA, Beeton C, Pennington MW, Norton RS, & Chandy KG (2014). Kv1.3 channel-blocking immunomodulatory peptides from parasitic worms: implications for autoimmune diseases. FASEB journal : official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology PMID: 24891519

5 responses

  1. Alex

    Awesome blog. Thanks for all the posts.
    I am wondering how would these new drugs differ from the current therapy options? Do they specifically “silence” immunity towards self, and if so how do they do it? Or do they suppress the immunity generally in an organism? In such case that wouldn’t be that revolutionatory, would it?


    September 20, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    • You are right, suppressing the immunity of a person isn’t new, we currently do that to help treat a range of issues.Unfortunately the drugs we currently use are not very effective and come with a whole host of side effects.

      This new peptide is (hopefully) a way to change that and since they have seen the effect of that peptide in humans already (since we are talking about a parasite here) so ideally when we take out the worm aspect of it we can have a better treatment without all the side effects. Very exciting stuff if you ask me.

      Also between you and me, Loony Labs (since this is my baby) has another idea that is in the pipeline that will also (hopefully) address autoimmunity, but shhhh it’s not ready yet and honestly I have no idea if it will work.

      In any case thanks for taking the time to comment and sorry I’m apparently so long winded!


      September 20, 2014 at 12:33 pm

  2. Alex

    Thanks Gabriel for the answer.
    I’m really into the subject of autoimmunity and inflammation targeted against our own cells. It has been hypothesize that there is tremendously higher number of autoimmune conditions, than we now know. But it would require huge amount of research into every condition to identify the correct antibody and antigen… In my opinion the first thing is to identify why the immune cell goes crazy (I’ve seen recently the exciting publication about gut microbiota, etc. which seems promising, because we could work on that) and then try to fix it. But hopefully in the meantime we will get new drugs, that actually work. 🙂 Perhaps thanks to parasitic worms.
    Can’t wait to hear about your idea as well.


    September 22, 2014 at 5:43 am

    • Stephanie

      Having not had TV for most of the past 10 years and only subsequently having regular internet access for less than 2 years I’ve particularly noticed a number of commercials advocating biologics that more specifically target different autoimmune diseases rather than blanket going down a list of trials. And I see this article speaks to that as well. Is this more and more likely to become the trend as these new things are developed and if so are there only certain categories that will primarily be focused on?


      September 26, 2016 at 8:30 am

      • Hi Stephanie, thanks for the questions. First, I do think that this will be the future and this answer will probably answer your second question as well.

        While I don’t think commercials show what the science really is (and some are quite the opposite and dangerous) personalized medicine, that is medicine tailored to help you specifically is the future.

        Right now science is focusing on doing “the most good,” in other words, helping the most people so they are focusing on autoimmune diseases (much like this post), HIV/AIDS things like that.

        In the future however, we will probably see everything personalized to a person instead of a disease, so you may get sick and the doctor will order something specifically tailored to your biology. Granted that will probably be quite a few years down the line, but it could happen sooner than we think.

        I hope that answers your questions! 🙂


        September 26, 2016 at 10:19 am

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