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Beauty Of Biology: Worms May 'Cure' Asthma

The spit of the parasitic hookworm could help cure asthma and other auto-immune diseases in the near future.

Researchers at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, at James Cook University (JCU) in Cairns, have identified a protein secreted by hookworms that suppresses asthma in mice.

The parasitic worm inhabits the intestines of humans and other animals.

It has hook-like mouthparts with which it attaches itself to the wall of the gut, puncturing the blood vessels and feeding on the blood.

An infestation often results in severe anaemia.

But surprisingly their presence in the body seems to have some protective mechanism against asthma and allergies.

Scientists turned to the tiny creature for research after children in developing countries, in particular Ethiopia, started wheezing soon after they were de-wormed, according to JCU immunologist Dr Severine Navarro.

"That's where the beauty of biology comes into play, for this little parasite to be happy and live for a long time they need to make sure that their host is actually healthy and happy, and the only way to achieve it is to take care of it essentially, and the minimum payment is just a few red blood cells," she said.

Basically, the worms regulate their human host's immune response to allergens in order to survive and remain undetected.

A study led by Dr Navarro and published in journal Science Translational Medicine, recently tested the worm protein, known as AIP-2, on both mice and human in vitro cells.

The mice treated with the protein showed an extensive suppression of inflammatory responses after exposure to an allergen. AIP-2 was also tested on cells from people allergic to dust mites, a common asthma trigger.

Dr Navarro was hesitant to use the word cure but said the benefits were long-lasting and very exciting.

The protein even showed some healing ability by preventing the "overwhelming inflammatory cascade" from happening.

"So that leaves some time for the lung tissue to re-generate and heal itself."

"In addition there are other compounds secreted by the hookworms that do have some healing properties so in the future we could also imagine a combination therapy that could promote healing and also suppress the non-wanted inflammatory immune responses that would completely revert the negative effect of asthma."

It's hoped a pill-based treatment using "all the wonderful mechanisms that worms have developed to help us" will be available in the next few years.

AAP

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