Hookworm Jones: A Hero for Scientists

Indiana Jones took an otherwise boring, stodgy field and through the magic of exaggeration, hyperbole, and outright lies made it look exciting. Science may have a lot of fictional badasses, but none as believable and down-to-earth as Jones. The reason being that Indiana Jones was actually based on a real person, which adds that tiny edge of realism that makes us buy him. Well, this is David Pritchard, and I would like to formally nominate him for science action-hero status.

hookworm jones

I know he doesn’t look like much, but he shows the kind of balls science hasn’t seen since the old-timey days when “experimenting” just meant blowing some shit up with some other shit and then maybe figuring out why afterwards. Also, “figuring out why” was just old-timey scientist slang for “more explosions.” Back in the day nobody really signed up for clinical trials, so if you wanted to test your risky new vaccine…well, there was only one patient who would always say yes: Yourself. That’s exactly what Pritchard did. He infected himself.

dr. david pritchard, i presume

Pritchard had a theory that dangerous parasites might help alleviate allergies. He thought this for two reasons: First, because he noticed that tribesman in Papua New Guinea did not present symptoms when exposed to environmental allergens. And second, because they were crawling with parasites. It takes a truly great mind to make that tenuous connection. I, for example, might extrapolate that data entirely differently. I might think that the absence of allergy symptoms means that the tribesman just weren’t allergic to anything in the air that day. And maybe the tribesmen without allergies have the highest hookworm infestations because they’re inexplicably gay for parasites.

gay for hookworms

That’s just my highly educated scientific hypothesis, of course.

Regardless, Pritchard decided he needed a more controlled environment to test this theory in full, and that’s where the self infection came in: He “applied a dressing to his arm that was crawling with pin-size hookworm larvae, like maggots on the surface of meat,” and then “left the wrap on for several days to make sure that the squirming freeloaders would infiltrate his system.” See, Pritchard had an idea – a fuck-all crazy, counter-intuitive idea – and he decided the best way to test it was to give the finger to self-preservation, slap hygiene right in its uppity mouth, and kindly request that his immune system go fuck itself to death with a ragged axe-handle.

science axe

He isn’t one to complain much, and when asked about the pain involved, only mentions that “the itch when they cross through your skin is…indescribable.” And he’s right, because the feeling of dozens of hookworms eating through your skin over a period of days is so egregiously awful that you would use it as an exaggerated description for lesser pain. Like, say you caught poison oak, and somebody asks you what it feels like – you might tell them “it’s like parasitic worms slowly eating into my arms.” If those worms were actually eating through your limbs, however, what could you say? “This is the worst thing,” is the only accurate statement. And then to drive the point home maybe you could hysterically sob until you fell unconscious. If forced to put it into words, I would suggest “fuckhorrible screamcrazy.”

hookworm terror

Pritchard’s theory is that allergies evolved as a means to dispel parasites, but that the worms in turn have evolved the means to shut these symptoms off, thus ensuring their position in the host is secure. Rather than finding that horrifying beyond the realm of logical sense, Pritchard thinks that’s “A-OK.” The article doesn’t specifically mention it, but I’m forced to assume that he then wrote a little card for the parasites informing them that they are “pretty cool dudes,” and immediately began researching the means to go about high-fiving a hookworm.

hookworm sloth

He’s now looking for clinical trial victims – I’m sorry, volunteers – willing to be infected with ten hookworms a piece in hopes of alleviating their allergies. There might be a small logical error here, and it’s a common issue in some problem-solving strategies. Say you have a rat infestation, so you get cats to get rid of the rats. But now you’re over-run with cats. Well, you get dogs to get rid of the cats – but now there’s too many dogs, so you get some tigers…See, it all started innocently enough, but things quickly escalated out of hand. Pritchard’s experiment follows a similar line of logic; he just didn’t want to muddle around with all those bullshit steps. Pritchard noticed he had a rat problem, so he immediately got some giant fucking tigers and a big foam finger that read “eat a dick, rats.”

hookworm tiger

Environmental allergies kind of suck, it’s true. And the medication isn’t always 100% effective – maybe 75% at best. So in pursuit of that elusive 25%, Pritchard is looking into hookworms. But according to the article, hookworms are “among the primary causes of stunted growth and malnutrition in developing countries,” and “suppress the immune system, increasing the host’s susceptibility to diseases like AIDS and malaria.” These very same hookworms kill over 65,000 people a year in the tropics, where Pritchard was studying when he got the idea. You might say that’s a big fucking tiger just to get rid of a pet hamster, but Pritchard is a big God damn man, and he does some big God damn science.

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17 Responses to Hookworm Jones: A Hero for Scientists

  1. Justin Force says:

    I really, really enjoyed the Sloth reference.

  2. Brett says:

    …I think you could sell “Eat a dick rats!” T-shirt. I’d probably not buy one because I’m lazy and cheap… but I’m sure there are not lazy people on the intern… Nevermind.

  3. Justin Force says:

    I agree that you could be selling shirts.

  4. deadlytoque says:

    Something that astounds me about our cohort (assuming you are mostly, like me, a decently-educated, twenty-something male) is that we prefer to learn our science through articles full of swearing and penis jokes.

    I think there’s a real market for this; remedial science in the “…For Dummies” vein, but directed at people who preferred Armageddon to Deep Impact, not because it was a better film, nor because it had anything to do with real science, but because it had Bruce Willis and the explosions were better. People who really could interface with the world of science (and probably other academic fields) if only there were more f-bombs and tits.

    Also: Big God Damn Science is yet another excellent book title.

  5. Bobsworth says:

    surely in the western world where risks such as AIDS and malaria are small compared to the tropics he’s not likely to risk catching them. also there must be an easy treatment to remove the hookworms once the research is complete.
    this could be just what’s needed to find an effective method of treating allergies.

    he’s still quite crazy though.

  6. Robert says:

    Toque,

    Big God Damn Science is a good book title, but unfortunately I’ve already decided that my first book will be called “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO KILL EVERYBODY!” and it will be cover-to-cover fearmongering and dicks – thus causing my readers to panic uncontrollably, and also to look at dicks. This is my revenge upon the world, and one day it will come to pass.

    MARK MY WORDS THE DAY WILL COME.

  7. Robert says:

    Bobsworth,

    In general, if I post about something, I’m a big fan of that something. There are exceptions, of course, but why devote all the time to studying and writing an essay about a subject if you don’t enjoy the material? I thought Pritchard’s solution was generally brilliant, and I meant the line about needing a genius mind to make the tenuous connection between hookworms and allergies. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not funny and crazy as hell.

    That being said, some of the problems with this treatment were serious:

    Specifically, the article cites AIDS and malaria as the most prominent dangers of the suppressed immune system because thus far, people of the tropics suffer the most from hookworms, and the most from malaria and AIDS. But that’s not to say that suppressing the immune system just lets AIDS and malaria through – that’s just what the tropics have had to deal with the most.

    If you import the hookworms on a mass scale to the nations most stricken with allergies, then those nations would have impaired immune systems too, and would suffer different illnesses, but illnesses all the same. We’d probably be more worried about influenza, pneumonia, or digestive diseases.

    And I agree again about this being a step in the right direction towards finding a better way to treat allergies – but that’s not what they’re doing with it. They’re actually testing hookworm infection as a treatment option. The end.

    Allergies solved, buddy; here’s some gut parasites instead.

    They should be back at the lab researching ways to simulate what the hookworms do without the dangers, rather than opening clinics where you can pay 3900.00 dollars to get infected with hookworms.

    Do these people not know that Taco Bell has a 99 cent menu?

  8. Muledriver says:

    “And also, dicks.”

  9. Jess says:

    Robert, my boy, I’m with you — it seems to me that the obvious answer here is to try and replicate whatever enzyme the hookworms are secreting that suppresses the allergen response. That is the only thing of value they offer. These things are not goddamn Spiderman-like symbiotes, they are parasites, and one good side-effect does not a miracle cure make. Anyone who thinks so has probably considered tapeworms as a weight loss cure, too.

  10. Robert says:

    Yeah, but I think because allergies are a symptom of an overreaction by your immune system, the only reason the hookworms work is that they suppress it. I don’t know if there is a way to simulate a cure without dealing with weakened immunity. The trade-off doesn’t seem worth it.

  11. JD says:

    you would think there would be a middle ground, though. if allergies are an over reaction, a proverbial “11” on a 1-10 scale, then you should be able to tone it down a little.

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  16. Tristen says:

    L-Argenine is extremely useful in enhancing the immune system, and it increases the size and activity of the thymus gland, which is responsible for manufacturing T lymphocytes – the much talked about T-cells, which assist the immune system. For this reason it might be an important nutrient for people suffering from AIDS and other malignant diseases which suppress the immune system.

  17. James says:

    Message:Basicly, we know what hookworms do, and it’s not so bad, we can kill them at will, and they can cure asthma (not in this article , but it’s being researched) So why spend millions on developing a drug when you can get the same result for free?

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