By Dr Jo Pennock (@immunojo), Manchester University. Come & meet Jo tomorrow on the South Bank, 2-5pm, where she will be talking about the fascinating world of worms.
As a research scientist I spend a lot of time thinking about ideas and how I am going to investigate them. This is the really enjoyable and creative part of my job… dreaming! Every scientist works with one big question, the one that gets them out of bed in the morning. Mine is to find out what prolongs long-term gut disease, particularly inflammatory bowel disease or IBD. I am an immunologist, so the most important part of this question for me is what the patient’s body is doing whilst the patient is sick. When you have flu for instance, you have a fever, your body aches and you lose your appetite. In fact a lot of these symptoms are your own immune cells trying to get rid of the flu virus; your immune system is at war with the infection. Even when you don’t feel ill, your body is constantly working to keep you healthy, renewing cells and keeping the outside world of bugs from causing disease.
How can your body do this? Well, like any good superhero worth her reputation, killing the villain can leave a trail of destruction. It’s the same with your immune system. Keeping you healthy doesn’t only mean killing the invader, it means repairing any damage that has happened along the way, otherwise we would fall apart. This is where we can learn something from infection; can invading bugs learn to survive inside us, even hide? I am particularly interested in worms… not the ones that live in the garden, but the ones that live inside the gut. Did you know that Richard III, the last English King to die in battle in 1485, was recently found with worm eggs in his intestines? That means that when he went into battle he was more than likely infected with worms. Today, the same worms are rarely found in the UK, but are still very common; there are 700 million people infected with worms right now, most of them children.
Worms have been living inside humans for thousands of years and have learnt to survive. Even though they cause incredible damage, the gut rarely falls apart and the worms can live there for months, sometimes years. Can we learn how they survive and use that knowledge to treat gut disease? Over the last 10 years several scientists have realised that worms can be beneficial for chronic diseases including allergy and IBD; in fact in countries where worm infections are common, allergy and IBD are rarely found. We have been trying to understand why. It turns out that worms may be helping our own body’s repair processes, to speed up healing of the trail of destruction that each worm leaves behind. These healing processes are missing in IBD patients. The really surprising part of this research is that the worm makes products that can be recognised by our own immune system, so they influence our response rather than hide from our attack, just like a double agent.
We are getting used to the idea of having beneficial bacteria in our guts and are even happy to drink live bacteria to try and stay healthy. Could worm infection help repair or even prevent chronic gut disease? It may still be a step too far to imagine hosting a few worms to keep you healthy, but if we can understand more about them we may be able to use worm products to treat gut disease and influence our own immune system to heal. A wormy world would be wonderful wouldn’t it?!
Picture 2: Worms from human faeces; Trichuris (left) and Ascaris(right). Photo courtesy of Emma Lawrence, University of Manchester
Picture 3: Electron microscopy image of the surface of a Trichuris whipworm. Photo courtesy of Richard Grencis, University of Manchester