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Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 01/15/2012

Intestinal worms: They’re gross, but they may offer good news for your lungs

You could easily be forgiven for thinking intestinal worms are good-for-nothing, totally gross pests. After all, what could be more disgusting than the thought of worms living in your bowels?

But with the publication Sunday afternoon of a new study in the journal Nature Medicine, it may be time to reconsider the lowly worm. Turns out that, in mice, at least, the presence of intestinal worms may trigger a healing response that’s beneficial to the lungs.

How’s that work?

Researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey explain that many worms, after entering the body through the skin, travel through the lungs before moving to the gut. Once they’re in the intestines, the body mounts a certain immune response (called a “Th2” response) that helps expel the worms from the body. Turns out that Th2 response also releases several entities that help heal the lung-tissue damage and inflammation caused by the worms’ passage through those organs.

The findings are clearly redeeming to intestinal worms. But what do they matter to us?

The study suggests the healing response to parasites such as intestinal worms might some day be used to treat wounds and lung injuries caused by pneumonia and other respiratory infections. Or, in science-speak: “The potent and highly polarized TH2-type response induced by infection with parasitic nematodes may have characteristics that could potentially be harnessed in the development of future therapies to enhance acute wound-healing responses, including treatment of acute lung injury.”

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