Meet Your Parasites: Can They Help Heal Autoimmune Disorders?

Artwork by Jordin Isip

Years after scientists first noticed that autoimmune disorders rise as our environment gets cleaner, a new generation of researchers is looking at parasites not as a scourge but as a possible cure.One chilly November morning, I head south from San Diego in a bottom-tier rental car. As I drive, the radio announcer reviews some of the most recent drug violence in Tijuana, where I’m headed. More than this ongoing brutality, however, parasites occupy my mind—worms that migrate through flesh, burst into lungs, crawl down throats, and latch on to tender insides. Any traveler might fret over acquiring such hangers-on while abroad. But I’m heading to Mexico precisely to obtain not just one, but a colony. Today in Tijuana I’ll deliberately introduce the hookworm Necator americanus—the American murderer—into my body.Scientists are of two minds about parasites these days. Some consider them evil incarnate, but others note that the majority of humans infected with parasites today—upward of 1.2 billion people—host worms with few apparent symptoms. This camp has begun to suspect that worms may, in fact, confer some b …

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Immune System