"Oh hi, I'm here to help you."
Jasper Lawrence doesn't bother with business cards. But if he did, he says, they would say that he's a helminthic therapist. A helminthic therapist harvests intestinal parasites from their poop and sells them to people.
Wait, what? Regardless of Jasper's extremely thorough sterilization process, why on earth would anyone pay real money for parasitic worms? Isn't this just like treating toothaches with blow or taking a good ol' fashioned leech bath?
Alternative columnist Cecil Adams compares helminthic therapy to killing syphilis bacteria with malaria. He says “The high fever of malaria killed the syphilis bacterium. The problem was you then had malaria, which five percent of the time would kill you.”
Jasper points out there's some science suggesting that these parasites, hookworms, and whipworms could cure allergies, asthma, Crohn's disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and just about any disease associated with the autoimmune system that you can imagine.
It’s called the “hygiene hypothesis,” and it goes like this: many years ago, humans were littered with parasites. These parasites co-evolved with us, so they can't survive without a human host. Think of them as roommates. Your autoimmune system has extreme OCD and freaks out if the throw pillows are crooked. It also has all these parasitic roommates who just hang out, rip bong hits, play Nintendo, and mooch your blood. The OCD autoimmune system is so resigned to living with blood-sucking parasites that it doesn't freak the fuck out and attack its own apartment (your body) when it sees a few pizza crusts or chicken wing bones lying around (for the sake of this extended metaphor, the pizza crusts and bones are the pollen that inflame allergies). So yeah, allergies cured.
Of course, it really sucks if the parasites invite too many of their shitty friends over because then you become anemic from all the bones and crusts lying everywhere. However, as Jasper pointed out, he doesn't sell you enough hookworms to make you anemic. Just enough to resign your autoimmune system to living in a messy apartment... I’m not sure this metaphor really works anymore, but whatever.
It's only a hypothesis, but it makes sense. Allergies, asthma, Crohn's disease, and multiple sclerosis occur significantly less frequently in rural, tropical parts of the world, where a much greater percentage of people carry parasitic worms due to unclean drinking water and the practice of both shitting outside and walking around barefoot (that's how the worms move in).
So even though Jasper acknowledges that “causation is not correlation,” he is confident that his worms work.
He also insists that he makes very little money with his helminthic therapy business Autoimmune Therapies. If he doesn't make any money, is it too good to be true? Jasper says he isn't in it for the money; he does it to help people. Can helminthic therapy really be as good as it sounds?
The biggest problem: no one knows exactly how these worms alter the autoimmune system's behavior. No one has discovered a specific molecule that they release. This is why it cannot be rendered into a drug and you need Jasper to mail his worms to you.
Jasper Lawrence: worm dealer.
Dr. Timothy Geary, a parasitologist at McGill University, is looking for that patentable molecule released by the worms and thinks that Jasper's treatment has scientific basis. Still, he expresses concerns. First of all, Dr. Geary makes it clear that we need to find this fucking molecule. Without it, no one can conduct a double-blind study clinical trial to prove that this isn't the placebo effect. The placebo effect is a distinct possibility. If placebos can treat Parkinson's disease, then they can certainly work on your hay fever.
So even though one of Jasper's clients, who we'll call “Tina,” told me that Jasper's treatment “has been beyond a success,” and that she has recommended it to her friends and family,” in the world of medicine this means nothing; patient testimonials are hearsay until a lab conducts a double-blind study. Jasper's Autoimmune Therapies is not a big pharmaceutical company—he cannot afford to fund the quest for the mystery-molecule and conduct a double-blind study.
Jasper acknowledges this, and insists “Honestly, if I was sitting on a patented molecule right now, you'd be talking to a flunkey of a flunkey of a flunkey. I'd be TIME man of the year and I'd be richer than Bill Gates. Absolutely. This is broadly applicable.”
There are still a few more problems. While Jasper wouldn't tell me his exact success rate, other than that it's “well over fifty percent,” Dr. Geary emphasized that it varies from disease to disease and person to person. So there is no guarantee that the worms work for everyone.
Another view of these poop worms.
Furthermore, Dr. Geary tells me, “What's to stop a patient from self-medicating? Or saying, 'Well I feel better with this much, maybe I'll do some more,' or 'I'll give them to my kids.' In theory, medicines are regulated a little bit. But they're transmissible. You can sell your Oxycontin on the street easily enough.”
Somehow, I don't think anyone's going to be harvesting their poo-worms and hustling them on the street. But, hey, stranger things have been hustled as cures.
Jasper's treatment is cheaper and less risky than many medications used to treat more serious autoimmune diseases. It's certainly less risky than undergoing surgery for Crohn's disease or multiple sclerosis. And success rates of “well over fifty percent” would be phenomenal in clinical trials. Yet to be clear, no one advocates infecting yourself with parasites for the sniffles. This is for the truly desperate, who tried and had no success with pharmaceuticals or even surgery. Even though Jasper and his clients are confident, and scientists such as Dr. Timothy Geary are optimistic, it's not unreasonable for those scientists, natural skeptics, to want some biological evidence.
When I ask Jasper point-blank if he's scamming sick, desperate people, he laughs. “Tell that to all the sick, desperate people who aren't sick and desperate anymore because of what I've done.” When I ask Jasper if a client has ever sued him, he proudly tells me that no one has. In response to the Cecil Adams column, Jasper says that he doesn't sell anyone enough worms to cause anemia (the worst possible side effect).
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Dr. Geary told me that there isn't a less gross way for helminthic therapists to harvest the worms. They have to come from poop. If helminthic therapy is the real deal, then it could revolutionize the treatment of several diseases. It could be a natural, cheaper and more effective treatment than prescription medication or surgery. However, before anyone gets too excited, nothing has been proven. The positive testimonies could be a coincidence or the placebo effect, in which case there are a lot of suckers putting useless, poopy-hook worms inside their body.
Follow Noah on Twitter: @noahtavlin
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