Unnatural Synthesis: Helminthic Therapy, Biomedical Research, and Defining What is ‘Natural’

Authors: Skye Naslund*, University of Washington
Topics: Medical and Health Geography, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: parasites, health, alternative medicine, microbiome, constructions of knowledge, nature, more-than-human body
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 5:00 PM
Room: Grand Couteau, Sheraton, 5th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Research around helminthic therapy (using parasites to treat autoimmune diseases) has recently shifted away from clinical trials toward exploration into how to synthesize the mechanism by which the therapy works. Because the worms’ lifespans range from weeks to a few years, as these clinical trials have ended, users who experienced disease remission in the trials have been forced to either cultivate juvenile worms from their own excrement or to illegally purchase worms online if they wish to continue with the treatment. As such, helminthic therapy users (and a handful of researchers) are pushing back against efforts to synthesize a drug that mimics the work that these worms do. It is not lost on users that a synthesized drug has far more profit potential for pharmaceutical companies (and thus potential expense for users) and that such efforts are likely to take years, if not decades. In their pushback, the idea of parasitic worms as ‘natural,’ as part of a healthy gut microbiome, and as having co-evolved with humans, is leveraged to justify research, redirect funding, and petition the FDAs ruling on helminthic therapy. This paper examines how ideas about nature are strategically employed by actors on both sides of the argument according to their motivations. Further, this paper frames the stakes of systematically equating ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ and how unpacking that equation helps us understand not only why some individuals put faith in alternative medical practices, but also how particular health practices are framed as ‘alternative’ in the first place.

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