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Parasites to combat celiac disease

A new treatment for celiac disease, which affects 1 in every 100 Australians, could be on its way if clinical trials being conducted by Australian researchers prove effective.

Their aim is to determine whether the human hookworm, Necator americanus, can inhibit immune response that causes the illness experienced by celiac sufferers.

Some experts believe that the disappearance of intestinal parasites (such as hookworm) from humans may be responsible for the upsurge in many autoimmune and allergic disorders such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and asthma.

“A parasite’s survival relies on an ability to interfere with the host’s immune response,” explained Associate Professor Alex Loukas from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR). “The mechanisms employed to do this are similar to those required by a person to regulate against autoimmune disorders, diseases in which the system turns on itself.”

“We suspect that when parasites are excluded from the immune mix, as is the case in most Western Societies, some individuals become more susceptible to developing autoimmune disease.”

Dr James Daveson from the Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH) said the research team will recruit a small group of healthy people with celiac disease, half of whom will be infected with low doses of hookworm larvae that will themselves only cause minor symptoms.

“At the end of the trial, the infected group’s immunity will be compared to that of the other group of coeliac subjects not infected with hookworm, before and after receiving a gluten challenge,” said Dr Daveson. “We aim to test whether the hookworm infection will change the immune processes and suppress gluten sensitivity in people with coeliac disease.”

“Our ultimate goal is to identify new ways of inhibiting autoimmunity and improve the quality of life for coeliac sufferers.”

The clinical trial is a collaborative project between QIMR, the PAH, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, the Anton Breinl Centre at James Cook University and led by Dr John Croese from the Townsville Hospital.

For more information on the trial, see our Clinical trials page