Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology/Hepatology Joel V. Weinstock, MD has spent much of his career studying intestinal parasites and working with patients diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Some think the recent spike in prevalence of IBD is due to a genetic factor, but Weinstock believes our environment also plays an important role. This role is explained by the “hygiene hypothesis,” which states the current obsession with cleanliness in developed societies may predispose humans to autoimmune diseases by decreasing our exposure to parasites and perhaps other organisms.
Helminthes, worm-like parasites that naturally live in the body, have been almost completely eradicated in countries like the United States. Weinstock suggests that these worms heighten and tone the regulatory side of our immune systems; so the immune response is more apt to turn off correctly after it has been challenged.
“What we basically discovered is that worms help stimulate the proper development of the regulatory aspects of immunity as we grow up,” Weinstock explained. After devising this hypothesis, Weinstock and his colleagues began to work on a parasitic treatment that would boost patient immune systems by strengthening its regulatory functioning.
The results of multiple experiments and several clinical trials with the pig whipworm parasite suggested that his idea could work in patients with IBD. The treatment then went to a pharmaceutical agency, which worked to develop it into a refined drug.
The drug, CNDO-201, now has good manufacturing process (GMP) approval and is being tested through a number of large studies to determine its effectiveness in several autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis and food allergies. For example, Coronado Biosciences Inc., of which Weinstock is a scientific cofounder, recently moved to Boston and has filed an Investigational New Drug application with the FDA to test the therapy in patients with Crohn’s disease. If the drug is shown to be safe and effective, it could eventually be used as a vaccine to prevent and treat immunological disease.