In a very basic sense, the T-cells can be thought of as the tiny platoon commanders in the body -- they are responsible for coordinating attacks on any dangerous invaders.
And, as with military field commanders, there are different strategies that these cells can use to eradicate an enemy. In one of these responses, the Th1 pattern, the T-cells initiate a nonspecific inflammation response from the body's immune system -- the biological equivalent of calling in a napalm strike.
The other option, known as the Th2 pattern, is a bit like radioing in a team of snipers -- a silent and precise strike against specific invaders. This immune reaction results in less inflammation than the Th1 response.
Both approaches are highly developed and effective. But in patients with MS, excess inflammation is already a problem. In these patients, inappropriate inflammation degrades the insulation of the nerves, known as myelin. Think of it as the "collateral damage" of the immune response, and it leads to the slowing of impulses along these nerves. This brings about the typical problems seen in MS, which include problems with vision, speech, walking, writing and memory.
That's where the worm egg cocktail comes in. When the worms hatch inside the intestine, they prompt the T-cells to call in the snipers instead of the napalm strike to kill them off. This, in turn, nudges the entire immune system into a less inflammatory mode -- in theory, at least.
"Pushing the immune system from a Th1 to a Th2 pattern is something that several of the current FDA-approved therapies for MS already do, and helminths seem particularly effective at doing this naturally," says Dr. John Richert, executive vice president of research and clinical programs for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
But whether the treatment works or not, the simple idea of throwing back a shot of worm eggs might be revolting to some patients.
"I don't think it would catch on," Panitch says. "Besides, it could carry risks that make it unacceptable -- for example, the patient could infect the rest of his or her family."
Panitch adds that an alternative to drinking the eggs might be isolating the chemical produced by the worms themselves that triggers the desired immune response -- and trying this out on animals first.
But if the treatment turns out to be safe, Richert says, it could show a good level of acceptance among patients who are willing to consume the cocktail.
"A key, of course, will be to make the treatment suspension palatable from the taste standpoint," Richert says. "An oral therapy with a track record of success will likely be acceptable to people with MS, particularly if it is clear that the treatment is safe."
Corboy agrees. "If it is just taste, and if it is infrequent, it's likely not a big deal."