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UW to Test Egg Therapy in Treatment of MS

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Egg therapy for multiple sclerosisMADISON – Do you eat yogurt containing helpful bacteria to "regulate the digestive system"?

Perhaps you enjoy fish eggs – caviar to the rest of us – as a tasty delicacy.

A new medical study will combine both ideas. The result? A therapeutic liquid containing the eggs of an unusual creature.

In a dramatic departure from current treatment approaches, a University of Wisconsin research team will become the first in the nation to test whether ingesting the eggs of a "helminth" whipworm (a tiny organism that commonly lives in humans and animals, often without causing any symptoms) can tame the flare-ups of the most common form of multiple sclerosis (MS).

A research team led by John Fleming, MD, professor of neurology at UW School of Medicine and Public Health, will soon launch a study to determine if "helminth-induced immunomodulation therapy" – HINT, for short – will relieve the symptoms of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. The study will be funded by the National MS Society.

MS is a neurological disorder that affects people of any age, but most are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. In MS, the fatty tissue surrounding nerves in a person's brain or spinal cord is damaged or destroyed, and so are the nerve fibers themselves.
In the relapsing-remitting form of the disease, the patient has acute flare-ups when symptoms worsen, followed by a period of recovery when symptoms improve. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, about 85 percent of newly diagnosed MS patients have the relapsing-remitting form.

The HINT study is based on what scientists term "the hygiene hypothesis." Growing evidence from both human and animal studies suggests that the very sanitary environments in developed countries, by reducing humans' exposure to germs and parasites, may be triggering the immune system to damage the body's own tissues and organs. (MS is believed to be such an "autoimmune" disease.) People in countries where parasites are very common rarely develop diseases like MS, suggesting that mild infections by helminths or similar organisms may prevent persons from developing autoimmune diseases.

If that theory is true, then introducing substances like helminth eggs might help by "redirecting" the immune system to focus not on the body, but on the eggs. That is what may happen in the Wisconsin study. In the first phase, patients who have declined to take standard medications for their MS (and who meet other study criteria) will receive a baseline MRI test as well as a neurological and physical exam.

Several weeks later, patients will be given the HINT solution containing the tiny eggs of the helminth. The eggs will hatch and mature inside the body, reaching about the size of an eyelash. They live for only a short time, during which it is hoped they will stimulate certain immune cells that will reduce the patients' MS lesions.

Fleming hopes to enroll five patients in the first phase of the study. The study will involve seven visits over about seven months. If the first phase of the study demonstrates safety and promise of this treatment, a larger study will enroll 15 patients and will study treatment for about a year.

"Our team has worked very hard to put together this study, because the results in studies of other diseases look promising," says Fleming. "This is an easily administered therapy, and if the experimental study demonstrates safety and promise, it may open up a whole new approach to therapy for an intractable disease."

The eggs of this particular organism have been used experimentally in humans before without negative effects. The purpose of the research study is to assess the safety and effectiveness of treating MS symptoms through the ingestion of helminth eggs.

Date Published: 03/07/2008

News tag(s):  neurology

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