Worming Your Way Out of a Problem

Figure 1: Earthworm Jim, a heroic worm... but for different reasons // Image credit: MickM via DeviantArt

Have you ever heard someone say that the western world is increasingly suffering from allergies? I reckon there’s a good chance you have. You probably never gave it a second thought too. Well let’s take a minute do dive deeper into that statement and consider some of the ramifications that arise from this seemingly-innocuous little sentence. First of all you may ask “what is it that makes the West more prone to allergies?” or to phrase it another, more useful, way “what makes the population other countries less susceptible to these diseases?” If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you might even ask, “if we know what makes others less prone to these allergies, can we make use of this to treat patients back home?”

The answer to these questions come from an unlikely hero; parasitic worms. Please don’t stop reading because this stays interesting! These worms have an uncanny ability to hide from your immune system. Once in your body, they release a steady stream of, what is known as, immuno-modulating chemicals. These get their name by altering the activity of your body’s natural immune system and lowering its ability to attack our wormy little friend, which is now hiding in your body. The eagle-eyed amongst you might ask “what’s this got to do with allergies?” Well, allergies arise when your immune system goes into overdrive and starts attacking your own body. If we could better understand the chemicals that these parasitic worms release, perhaps we could mimic their effects by designing similar compounds, with similar (or better) activities, with the potential to become new medicines. Good stuff. Fortunately, researchers at Strathclyde University are some amongst many to run a project that aims to do just this 1. It’s one of Professor Suckling’s many contributions to the world of medicine and just one of the many reasons that his loyal Research Officer, Dr. Abed Khalaf, is one of the RSC’s 175 faces of chemistry. So the next time someone talks about eczema, asthma or even arthritis, why not try to worm this little piece of information into the conversation.

Edited by Debbie Nicol



  1. Read about project here. 

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