I don’t know how I missed this the first time — probably because of the nearly incomprehensibly jargon-y title — but in a study published late last year, Harvard scientists showed that a sugar derived from parasitic worms could reverse metabolic syndrome in mice. The sugar works as an immune suppressant.
Here’s the oddest part: the two places humans encounter this sugar in “nature” are parasitic worms and—wait for it—breast milk.
Metabolic syndrome, that pre diabetic state characterized by low-grade inflammation and insulin resistance, increases the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and even dementia. Some scientists find trans generational effects. Various studies suggest that when a pregnant mother is obese, her children have a greater risk of both autism and asthma, not to mention obesity and some cancers.
One-third of Americans — the obese third — are considered to have metabolic syndrome.
In this study, the scientists let mice eat junk food for a few weeks. The rodents grew fat and developed metabolic syndrome. Then the scientists injected them with these sugars, called glycans. They were derived from a parasite called Schistosoma mansoni, a nasty trematode that normally lives in the veins around the colon and bladder. The treatment improved the mice’s insulin sensitivity. Levels of an anti-inflammatory signaling molecule called IL10 went up. Inflammation went down. The syndrome dissipated, although it’s worth noting that the mice didn’t lose weight. They just ended up healthier. And all that happened without changing diet.
So back to breast milk. You get these glycans when you’re a nursing infant. But after weaning, according to the authors, humans don’t really encounter them any longer.
That is, not these days. In our evolutionary past, when we were nearly universally parasitized, we got plenty of these immunomodulatory sugars.
The best part about this study is the scientists got the effect with a parasite product, not the parasite itself. We have the makings of a worm-based drug here.
Or if it makes people feel better, we could call it a breast milk-like drug that’s based on a sugar that also happens to appear on parasites.
One of the implications is that part of the so-called obesity epidemic stems not just from our unprecedentedly calorie-rich diet and lack of exercise, but also from these more subtle and, until now, mostly overlooked changes.
Actual parasites were constantly injecting us with these immune-suppressing sugars in the past, and then that injection suddenly ground to a halt. That’s maybe part of the explanation for the modern torrent of inflammatory diseases.