A molecule in parasitic worms could help explain why worm infections can effectively treat a range of autoimmune diseases, say scientists.
According to the study, the peptide from parasitic worms called AcK1 was shown to dampen the immune system, which could pave the way for a new drug containing the peptide to provide relief from the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.
The new line of research offers an alternative to helminthic therapy, where people deliberately infect themselves with parasitic worms, in an attempt to put their autoimmune disease into remission. It's thought that the worms have a calming effect on their host's immune systems in order to ensure their survival.
Rather than using worms, the research team searched for the active components responsible for immunomodulatory effects in parasitic worms. By creating a cDNA library from the anterior secretory glands of the parasitic hookworm Ancylostoma caninium, they identified a peptide called AcK1 that dampens the immune system by inhibiting a potassium channel (Kv1.3).
Researchers found that AcK1 closely resembles ShK, a peptide from a sea anemone, which has been shown to suppress autoimmune diseases and is currently in clinical trials for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
Lead researcher Professor Ray Norton from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) said experts around the world have yet to fully understand the causes of autoimmune diseases, which have risen significantly in parts of the world.
He said that there are more than eighty autoimmune diseases, ranging in severity from mild to life threatening in some cases. While some affect mainly one area or organ, others can affect many parts of the body and many people believe there's a link between the rise in autoimmune diseases and an increased focus on cleanliness in western societies, because the immune system is no longer exposed to the broad range of infections that previous generations had to deal with.
The study was published in the FASEB Journal.