Scientist Volunteers To Be Parasitized By 50 Hookworms For Vaccine Study

Postdoctoral Fellow Jimmy Bernot (left) was a willing participant as a protagonist for parasites. Image courtesy of Dr Jimmy Bernot

Many sacrifices have been made in the name of scientific research, and the last 12 months has demonstrated the dire need for volunteers when trying to develop life-saving vaccinations. Studies of this variety are mostly conducted with a double-blind approach, where both the recipient and the researcher has no idea who’s getting the trial drug and who’s getting the placebo – a harmless substance engineered to act as a control.

Sometimes, it’s the researchers themselves who get involved with the research, and one such example was shared on Twitter by Dr Jimmy Bernot, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The thread gives a blow-by-blow account of what it’s like to be enrolled in such research, from receiving the vaccine to – in Bernot’s case – being parasitized by 50 hookworms. He’s perhaps the perfect volunteer for such research, having more kind words to say about parasites than most.

“I think the most common misconception about parasites is that they are all bad,” wrote Bernot in an email to IFLScience. “It is true that parasites have negative effects on their hosts. Some parasites cause disease in humans and we absolutely should treat and prevent those. That being said, most people are surprised to find out that parasites are also a natural and important part of healthy ecosystems.

“Parasites play many roles in ecosystems and numerous studies have shown parasites benefit natural food webs and are positive indicators of ecosystem health. Just like predators help regulate prey populations, parasites help regulate host populations and their presence is a sign of a healthy, well-connected ecosystem.”

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As Bernot explains in the thread, hookworms are a species of interest to science with around 500 million people being infected with hookworms annually, mostly in tropical and subtropical areas including the southern USA. In vast numbers, they can cause a number of symptoms including anemia and they can sneak into the body through the skin. For Bernot, the worms’ point of entry was his wrist and pictures show the subsequent itchy rash that lingers after they’ve made their way into the circulatory system “like a tube slide at a waterpark,” to use his own words.

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When working with live test subjects, researchers will sometimes volunteer their biological products to sustain the lives of their lab pals such as mosquitos, and we found out last year that some doting leech parents are very happy providing sustenance for their pet leeches.

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The next step for the research was to start monitoring the volunteers' feces for evidence of hookworm eggs, which would show they were reproducing, but in the time of COVID, nothing is ever simple.

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Amazingly, it seems there can be some perks to hosting a party for hookworms.

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Almost a year after the study it was time for Bernot's role and the worm's position in his body to come to an end. Fortunately, hookworms are easy to get rid of with access to the right medicines. So, how does it feel to see a study from a new perspective for a practicing scientist?

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In order for a medication or vaccine to be approved for wider use, they must go through a rigorous testing regime, which can’t be completed without the help of volunteers. The remarkable global collaboration of the scientific community during the COVID-19 pandemic saw the incredible turnaround of several approved-for-use vaccines in under a year. In fact, one of our own IFLScience writers was a volunteer involved in one of the vaccine trials (though no poop pick-ups were required).

“I've been involved with a number of studies as a researcher, but this was my first time taking part in a clinical study as a participant,” said Bernot, who in 2015 actually described a new species of tapeworm, Symcallio peteri, named after his father, Peter. "Yes, it is an honor to have a tapeworm named after you!" he insists.

An artificially colored scanning electron micrograph of Symcallio peteri. Image courtesy of Dr Jimmy Bernot

At time of writing he still doesn’t know if he was given the vaccine or the placebo for the trial, though he will eventually find out, but being kept in the dark is actually vital to the success of the trial.

“The gold standard for clinical studies is a double-blinded placebo-controlled study," said Bernot. "There is a lot of potential for bias in research studies. For example, someone receiving treatment might feel better just because they think they have received medicine (called a placebo effect) or doctors and nurses might unintentionally treat people receiving a treatment vs a placebo differently.”

So, would you host a party of 50 in the name of science? Let us know on TwitterFacebook or via email at social@iflscience.com

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