Parasitic worms could hold key to anti-ageing, researchers suggest

Lizzie Roberts
·3 min read
Illustration of a tapeworm in a human intestine.  - JUAN GAERTNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY 
Illustration of a tapeworm in a human intestine. - JUAN GAERTNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Parasitic worms could hold the key to a 'fountain of youth' pill, according to new research from University College London.

Being infected with proteins derived from parasitic helminths, like hookworms and whipworms, may prevent heart disease, dementia and other life threatening conditions, researchers suggest.

And it could help fight inflammation and ward off age related illnesses.

The worms, which once lived harmlessly in our intestines, have largely disappeared from westerners due to our modern lifestyles, including good sanitation.

But lead author Bruce Zhang, a biology student at University College London's Institute of Healthy Ageing, said the loss of our “old friends” may be linked to increases in ageing-associated inflammation.

"A decline in exposure to commensal microbes and gut helminths in developed countries has been linked to increased prevalence of allergic and autoimmune inflammatory disorders,” he said.

"A further possibility is this loss of 'old friend' microbes and helminths increases the sterile, ageing-associated inflammation known as inflammageing."

The study, an assessment of previous research into the topic, published in eLife, raises the possibility that helminth therapy could help keep us young.

Previous research suggests that inflammageing fuels a range of disorders from cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and osteoporosis, the researchers said.

One theory is that it is caused by changes in the gut microbiome, but little consideration has been given to the role of the macrobiome - the ecosystem of organisms larger than bacteria.

This includes helminths such as flukes, tapeworms and nematodes. A review of previous papers found helminth therapy can successfully treat inflammatory disorders such as coeliac disease. It can also stop - or even reverse - the ageing process, research has suggested.

The loss of helminths has been linked to asthma, eczema, bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, the researchers said. Some studies have shown infection with helminths soothes symptoms and animal experiments suggest they also reduce the risk of disease.

Could parasitic worms hold the key to a 'fountain of youth' pill? - Getty /AZarubaika 
Could parasitic worms hold the key to a 'fountain of youth' pill? - Getty /AZarubaika

This indicates using helminth-derived proteins may achieve the same benefits and would be a safer and more palatable option, the researchers said.

Study co-author Prof David Gems, of UCL, added: "It goes without saying improvements in hygiene and elimination of helminth parasites have been of incalculable benefit to humanity.

"But a cost coupled to this benefit is abnormalities of immune function.

"In the wake of successes during the last century in eliminating the evil of helminths, the time now seems right to further explore their possible benefits, particularly for our ageing population - strange as this may sound."

Other research has shown helminth-derived proteins can boost good gut bacteria in mice exposed to a junk food diet.

It also reduced fat tissue, which is known to be a major source of inflammageing.

Interestingly, lower rates of inflammageing-related disease have been identified in areas where helminth infection is common.

For instance in Eastern India, the worms have been found to prevent rheumatoid arthritis. Epidemiological studies have also shown helminths protect against type 2 diabetes and blocked arteries.

Concluding their exploratory paper, the authors said: “Available evidence suggests that restorative helminth therapies are effective against not only allergic and autoimmune inflammatory disorders, but also age-associated inflammation in later life, at least to some extent.

“Should this be confirmed, helminth therapy could provide protection against the wide spectrum of age-related diseases promoted by inflammageing.”