SCIENCE DISPATCH: The Miracle Worm

The worms are coming.
The worms are coming. // Creative Commons

This is the second article in a WEEKEND series by Aishwarya Vijay. Taking the time to read intense science magazines and research so that we don’t have to, Aishwarya will be giving our faithful readers regular updates on the field, so we aren’t all taken by surprise when, like, the sun melts.

“Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” Mary Poppins trilled joyfully. My childhood experience proved this to be patently false. Every time I would take that dreaded, hot pink bubblegum medicine that seemed to cure everything, I would go through the whole series of dramatic actions: moaning, groaning, pretend-fainting, while my mom patiently waited.

(Side note: Taking care of a sick child would be an awesome form of birth control.)

Clearly, I didn’t know how good I had it. Apparently, people in China have been eating what they call “Tibetan mushrooms” for years now as a cure-all – asthma, cancer, erectile dysfunction, you name it. So what is a Tibetan mushroom, you ask? Well, perhaps you should finish eating first.

Basically, moth larvae, which are endemic to China, are often infected by a fungus called cordyceps. Cordyceps is basically straight out of a Steven King novel – it takes over the brain of this larva and eats it from the inside, while causing the larva to move to a place where cordyceps can spread its spores and infect other worms. Believe it or not, for the Chinese, this process means hope and massive amounts of cash ($50,000 a pound!). Vendors sell the worms for consumers to eat, either by chewing them raw or brewing them in tea. I guess there are worse things than kombucha.

The Chinese have been prescribing this “herbal” remedy for years now, but nobody really took any notice, because home remedies are always kind of weird.  But now, a new study published in the journal RNA cites cordycepin, the chemical derived from the fungus, as an anti-inflammatory. Oh noez!!1
Inflammation evolved as a human response to foreign pathogens. It is normally beneficial – when you get inflammation, this is because your immune system is releasing cytokine chemicals to heal a wound or infection. But it can also become excessive. You can have diseases caused by chronic inflammation, like asthma and arthritis.

The really special thing about these worms (not a phrase you hear often) is that consuming them stops inflammation at the genetic cellular level, by affecting the final step of synthesis in RNA that creates inflammatory proteins. Most inflammatory drugs on the market today affect inflammation in the final stages of its reaction. The worms, as novel anti-inflammatory approach, might work for patients who react badly to the current drugs.

Lest you freak out and start stockpiling non-wormy Ibuprofen (or embrace this whole-heartedly and start ordering these not-so-gummy worms), there are only a handful of studies out there that show similar findings. One thing is the unacknowledged 10% mortality rate for those taking these Tibetan ‘shrooms, which is pretty unacceptable in modern medicine, but probably not as scary if you live pretty far away from a hospital up in the high Tibetan plateau, relatively far away from a hospital. Plus, a lot of this medicine is harvested in the wild, where there is no quality control and no way to assure that each batch has an appropriate level of cordycepin. While the recent study is an interesting find, most people will have to wait a while for an approved medicine to come out before they can try some of this miracle worm.

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