That single discovery could have profound implications in the years ahead. The chemical is cheap and easy to synthesize, according to Oaks. If it can be added to the skin of a capsule containing medication, it could slow down the propulsive activity until most of the drug is absorbed. The body does that on its own after a meal so the nutrients can be taken up, but between meals "a wave sweeps down the small intestine and takes all the bacteria and anything that's left in there and pushes it into the colon," Oaks says.
So a pharmaceutical drug doesn?t have much time to get its act together.
Getting Meds to Stick Around
"Most oral medications would benefit from prolonged small intestinal residence," Bass says. "Almost all drugs we take orally are absorbed from the small intestine. By prolonging the medication's residence time in that organ, we should enhance its absorption and obtain higher blood levels of the medication."
Of course, no one knows yet if this will work for humans. Much research needs to be done, including clinical trials that are not yet even scheduled. It won't be possible to test human patients with tapeworms because those parasites are so dangerous that they are eliminated immediately, but the tapeworm found in rats — the one studied by Oaks and Bass — is very similar to the worm found in humans.
And if the chemical can slow down the intestine in rats, it probably can in humans, Oaks says, because our intestines are also quite similar.
The researchers expect to work with a major pharmaceutical company to test out their findings. For trial purposes, the chemical could be added to a common drug, and patients who take the drug would be followed for some time.
A simple blood test, repeated over time, would tell if the chemical is working.
"If it is, the drug should reach the bloodstream in greater quantities," Oaks says.
Reducing Expensive Waste
Modern measuring devices called mass spectrometers can detected the tiniest bit of chemical in even a drop of blood. If they find an increasing level of the drug in the blood, then it would be working.
That would be very significant for some drugs. Fosamax, for example, is taken by many women to prevent or treat osteoporosis, according to Bass, but only about 1 percent is actually absorbed. The rest becomes very expensive waste, because patients spend more than $1 billion on the drug annually.
So 99 percent of the drug is ejected as fecal matter, joining a rising tide of pharmaceutical drugs that are released into the environment. That growing environmental threat is of grave concern to many scientists.
Maybe a slimy creature that invites itself into the bodies of others can lend us a helping hand here, so to speak.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.