If you had a chronic and potentially debilitating condition such as rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn's disease, and swallowing the eggs of a pig parasite could help, would you do it?
The team at Coronado Biosciences Inc is betting you would.
The Burlington, Massachusetts company is developing what it hopes will be the first in a new class of treatments for autoimmune conditions. Each dose of the drug consists of thousands of microscopic parasite eggs, culled from pig feces, suspended in a tablespoon of saline solution to be swallowed.
In a pig, the eggs would grow into mature whipworms and reproduce, without harming their host. In humans, the same eggs barely survive two weeks. Yet in that short period they appear to modulate a patient's immune system and prevent it from attacking the body's own tissues and organs.
"It has the potential not only to be a drug but to provide insight into the cause of these diseases," said Dr. Joel Weinstock, chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston and an adviser to Coronado.
The technology behind Coronado's product was developed by Weinstock and researchers at the University of Iowa, where Weinstock was affiliated before Tufts. It is based on the "hygiene hypothesis," which holds that many developed countries have, in some ways, become too clean for their own good.
Millions of organisms, including viruses, bacteria and worms, enter the body through contact with dirt. Researchers believe many of these organisms are needed to train the body's immune system to recognise and fight disease.
"Microbes have adapted to us, and us to them, and we use them to stimulate our immune system," said Dennis Kasper, a professor of medicine, microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School, who is not involved with Coronado's product.
Today in many parts of the world these organisms are kept at bay with an array of antibacterial soaps, detergents and sanitising gels.
Studies have shown that the incidence of autoimmune disease tends to be highest in the developed world, and is highest there among upper-income groups. Weinstock and others hypothesise that the elimination of certain intestinal parasites may have led to the loss in some individuals of a key mechanism for modulating the immune system.