Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) isn't good for anyone to have, but it's particularly hard on children – it can cause reduced absorption of nutrients, which can in turn stunt a child's growth. That's why scientists are looking at a better way of treating it … using tapeworms.

Researchers from Canada's University of Calgary started their study by infecting one group of young mice with Hymenolepis diminuta tapeworms, and leaving a control group worm-free. After 10 days, the first group's immune systems fought off the parasites, and the mice expelled them.

All of the mice were then exposed to substances that cause colitis, which is one type of inflammatory bowel disease. The mice that had been infected with the tapeworms developed much less severe colitis than the control group.

This was likely due to what is known as immunological memory. It's a response in which the body, when faced with one threat, remembers a similar threat that it dealt with previously, and produces more white blood cells accordingly.

Additionally, after being exposed to colitis, some mice from the first group received an injection of a tapeworm extract. Called helminth extract (tapeworms are a type of helminth), it simulated a recurring tapeworm infection. This seemed to boost the immunological memory response of the mice even further, causing them to produce higher levels of anti-inflammatory proteins. As a result, they ended up developing few if any colitis symptoms.

"Helminth therapy could be of value in pediatric IBD, and triggering anti-helminth immunological memory could serve as an anti-colitic approach in previously infected individuals," the scientists wrote in a paper published in the American Journal of Physiology - Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology.

Source: American Physiological Society