Many immune-mediated diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, asthma, and food allergy appeared to have increased in frequency in developed countries in the latter part of the twentieth century. Reports from less developed countries suggest that the "epidemic" of immune-mediated diseases now is spreading into these regions as well. The "hygiene hypothesis" was developed to partly explain this phenomenon. It has been proposed that modern-day sanitary living has altered our exposure to organisms that provided protection from these diseases in the past. Alternations in the composition of our intestinal flora and fauna could play a role. Helminths are a group of worm-like parasitic organisms that have adapted to live in various regions of their hosts. Epidemiological and some clinical data suggest that these organisms can protect people from developing immune-mediated diseases. Animal experimentation has shown that helminths stimulate the production of regulatory cytokines, activate regulatory T cells, and induce regulatory dendritic cells and macrophages. This could be the mechanism by which they protect the host from these diseases. Early clinical studies also suggest that helminths may prove useful for treating immunological diseases. More sophisticated clinical studies are underway, testing live helminth agents as therapeutic agents. Also, a strong effort is ongoing to discover the agents produced by helminths that modulate host immune responses with an eye on developing new, highly effective immune modulatory therapeutic agent.
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