Allergy Desperation: I'll Take a Parasite, Please

People are buying parasites in an attempt to treat asthma, allergies and more.

ByABC News
July 17, 2009, 6:30 PM

July 20, 2009— -- Everybody has a dream, even if it's as odd as wishing more people in the modern world had parasitic worms.

Jasper Lawrence so desperately wanted to be infected with a hookworm that he traveled to Africa and walked barefoot alongside open latrines in Cameroon to get one.

He got the idea from a documentary about a British researcher, David Pritchard, who has infected himself and spent decades researching why populations of people in the world where hookworm is common have virtually no hay fever, no allergies or asthma.

After years of suffering from adult onset asthma and allergies, years of driving himself "with stars in my eyes because [I] couldn't get enough air" to the hospital for treatment, and after years of taking the powerful drug prednisone, Lawrence thought he was ready to try a worm.

"It was only when I realized that there was no way I was going to obtain hookworm through buying it that I [decided I] would go to Africa," said Lawrence.

"I took my shoes off and I walked barefoot in open-air latrines. It was pretty much walking around barefoot in the areas. You didn't have to actually walk in the excrement," he said. "I got laughed at a lot, but some people were really hostile about it. ... While I was there my feet were very itchy, so I felt very confident that I was infected."

Within a few months, Lawrence said his asthma and allergy symptoms dissipated. He stopped prednisone. He started to exercise without worrying about an attack and, as a result, he said he lost 40 pounds.

Seeing an untapped treatment, Lawrence decided to go into business selling parasitic worms to people hoping to temper autoimmune conditions such as asthma, allergies, Crohn's disease, colitis and inflammatory bowel disease. He even has competition. At least one other online business offers patients worm therapy -- all without monitoring by the Food and Drug Administration.

Doctors and researchers say the worm therapy idea not only holds water, it is a promising wide-reaching treatment with FDA-monitored clinical trials for patients in several major U.S. cities.

But some doctors are not pleased by the new parasite treatment companies.

"It is a legitimate field, but it's been bootlegged," said Dr. Joel Weinstock, a professor of medicine at Tufts University, who has used his background in parasitology and specialist training in inflammatory bowel disease to study parasitic treatment for years.

"It could be within two or three years we have some really good things to treat disease," he said. But Weinstock pointed out that "99 times out of 100, most good ideas don't work out."

Weinstock said he and other scientists in Germany and the U.S. are currently working to test the parasitic therapy. He said it takes millions of dollars to clear a therapy under FDA oversight, and it costs money for a reason: The results are funneled into scientific research, and patients will be guaranteed a pure product from laboratories with oversight.

"The question is, what are you actually buying [from such companies]?" asked Weinstock, who added selling parasites over the Internet "hurts the science, and when people do this it makes people skeptical."

For $2,900, clients of Lawrence's company, Autoimmune Therapies, can swallow a dose of whipworm, or apply a Band-Aid of hookworms to penetrate the skin. The clients must submit a patient questionnaire, blood test and undergo a phone interview with a doctor before purchasing.

Todd Troutman, of Alabama, said he was so desperate for relief from his allergies that he was willing to take the risk.

"When I saw it I said 'OK' I forked out $ 3,000 and I was pretty sick, so that will make you do some things," he said.

"My eyes would swell almost entirely shut. Most of my life consisted of blowing my nose or finding something to blow my nose on. I was sleeping 14-15 hours a day having absolutely no energy at all ever, it's just like having the flu and it just never goes away," Troutman said. "You get up to the level of having a bad cold, and then the weather changes again it goes back to having a bad flu."

Troutman said the parasites brought such a relief he was able to get off medication and move out of the desert environment he retreated to for relief.

While Lawrence claims the therapy is akin to intensive probiotics and is legal in the United States, Aglietti reasoned it would be easier to do business in Mexico rather than attempt to get approval for food, drug or medical devices under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Both Lawrence and Aglietti got the idea for their treatments from a hypothesis circulating among parasitologists and gastroenterologists at top universities in the United States and Britain.

"Many years ago, and the theory is still out there, [it was thought] that a lot of us old people who grew up in the South got infected with all sorts of parasites and that that response prevented us from getting asthma and allergies," said Raymond Kuhn, professor of biology and an expert on parasites at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Serious researchers at Tufts University in Boston, Cambridge University and others have explored the idea that humans evolved by building an immune system that was in an arms race of sorts with parasites.

The hypothesis goes that until recently, humans were fighting off some sort of parasite or another for millions of years, ever since humans evolved into humans. That co-existence eventually led humans to evolving an immune system that worked with parasites.

"When you're born you have an immune system, but your immune system is a blank slate," said Weinstock.

Weinstock explained that just as humans create a functioning digestive system by populating their digestive system with bacteria, humans historically developed an immune designed to account for parasites in the body.

But in the last 150 years, the industrialized world's clean food supply and plumbing suddenly removed parasites from people's bodies. In response, researchers now widely think that people's immune systems stopped developing properly.

Weinstock said most people still have a powerful "attack" function of their immune system, but that many believe the immune system does not develop to regulate properly in the absence of helminthes (parasitic worms).

"People who are not exposed to helminthes have sloppy regulation," said Weinstock. As a result some people's immune systems go off kilter and misfire against their own bodies creating autoimmune disorders such as allergies, asthma, or inflammatory bowel disease.