There’s an upside to hookworms

3 minute read

Blood-eating intestinal parasites may have a role to play in combating metabolic diseases.

Your Back Page correspondent was a curious child. Strange, quite probably, but also possessed of an inquiring mind not universally appreciated by parents and teachers.

For example, if, as the song goes, “All thing bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small … the Lord God made them all”, what on earth was God thinking when he came up with hookworms? Did the world really need tiny intestinal, blood-feeding, parasitic worms that can cause long-lasting and deadly infections and prey on populations which are already having to deal with the shitty end of the sanitation stick?

Being the beneficiary of an education delivered by a now somewhat notorious Catholic order of brothers, the answer was that hookworms were all part of a divine plan that thickos like us couldn’t possibly begin to fathom.

As it turns out, however, there might just be an upside to hookworms after all.

Australian researchers recently conducted a human trial at James Cook University using live hookworm larvae as a treatment for conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

Their results, published last month in Nature Communications,  demonstrate the trial to be a stonking success, prompting interest in larger scale international trials to bolster the findings. 

The boffins recruited 40 brave souls, all with early warning signs of future metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, to take part in the two-year clinical trial.

Half the folks received placebo while the other half were inoculated with either 20 or 40 infectious larvae of the human hookworm species, Necator americanus.    

According to Dr Doris Pierce, from JCU’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, infecting people with microscopic hookworm larvae has a beneficial impact on their glucose metabolism, inducing a significant reduction in insulin resistance levels.

“Metabolic diseases are characterised by inflammatory immune responses and previous studies have suggested that hookworms release proteins into their host to control the immune system and safeguard their survival,” Dr Pierce said in a media release.

“All trial participants had risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The trial delivered some considerable metabolic benefits to the hookworm-treated recipients, particularly those infected with 20 larvae.”

Triallists infected with 20 hookworms experienced a median Homeostatic Model Assessment of Insulin Resistance level drop from a pre-trial level of 3.0 units to just 1.8 units within 12 months, restoring their level of insulin resistance to a healthy range.

And in a sentence we never thought we would read: “Worm recipients tended to report feeling better, mood-wise, than those in the placebo group,” Dr Pierce said.

What’s more, after two years participants were offered a deworming medication or could elect to stay in the trial for a further 12 months. All but one of the infected participants decided to keep their worms.

We’ve also seen the parasites in the news recently has having a possible protective effect against severe covid.

So while we remain unconvinced that intestinal worms are all part of an overarching divine plan, it’s heartening to know the nasty little buggers might actually be able to do some good as well.

Send story tips to for considerable metabolic benefits.

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