The lab of Nicola Harris at EPFL has recently discovered that intestinal worm infections and gut bacteria communicate with one another to help the immune system. The anti-inflammatory activity of intestinal worms – namely helminths – is involved in ‘cross-talks’ with gut microbiota. The latter has been hugely dominating health and nutritional news in recent years because of their importance in maintaining metabolism and immunity.

Intestinal Worm Infections Could Prove To Be Beneficial

Intestinal worms infect more than 2 billion people, most of whom are children, worldwide in areas where sanitation is fairly poor. They belong to a wider family of large muticellular parasites known as helminths. The latter cause chronic infections and even though they’ve been eradicated in most industrialized areas, they still effect billions of people globally.

Despite causing severe health complications, these worms can indirectly assist the immune system of their host in protecting itself. This potentially means that these worms could have clinical benefits. However, very little is currently known about these interactions, and this study demonstrates that this communication might involve gut bacteria.

Because of their co-evolution with mammals, helminths can eradicate diseases such as allergic asthma. Again, very little is understood about how these parasites interact with the immune system, and whether they can be exploited to fight inflammatory diseases.

Microbes Can Talk To Each Other: Working With Pigs And Mice

Researchers observed the effects of helminths that cause infection in pigs. Following chronic infection, the hosts metabolism had been drastically modified, with a specific increase in the production of SCFA’s (short-chain fatty acids). These fatty acids are generally produced by gut microbes and activate various receptors that influence the immune system, colon infections and modulate allergic airway disease.

Similar results were seen in mice infected with helminths. This ascertains a clear association between worm infection, gut microbes and the immune system.

“It is still not the entire story”, stated Nicola Harris. “But it provides an additional, interesting way to explain, and possibly exploit, a strategy with which intestinal worms communicate with the host’s immune system”. The work is published in Immunity.