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Opening up a can of worms

MORE than 7,000 people worldwide are thought to have bought parasitic worms online and eaten them in an attempt to treat conditions ranging from depression to inflammatory bowel disease.

Now a pig worm is being evaluated for approval as a food ingredient in Germany. If accepted, it will become the first officially approved product of its kind in Europe.

The idea behind intentionally infecting yourself with parasites is that, until recent improvements in hygiene, they were common inhabitants of our bodies, and had evolved to secrete substances to pacify our immune systems so they can live in our guts.

Detlev Goj of Thai company Tanawisa thinks that, in eliminating the problem of parasites in many countries — particularly the human hookworm, which can cause diarrhoea, pain, anaemia and weight loss — we are overlooking the benefits some may have. The results so far seem to indicate such infections can sometimes alleviate the symptoms of inflammatory diseases, he says.

His team has searched for parasites in other animals that may help people without causing adverse symptoms, settling on the pig whipworm, which cannot survive for long in humans.

He and his colleagues haven’t yet managed to show that their worms have health benefits in clinical trials.But their whipworms were approved in Thailand in 2012 on the basis that they are a natural product and tests had found no ill effects.

Now Germany’s Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety has accepted the whipworm product for official evaluation.

If approved, it could be legally sold in high street shops, and may be approved by other EU states. ‘This is the first live worm product to get this far,’ said Mr Goj. He hopes to sell small vials, each containing 500, 1,000 or 2,500 eggs to be consumed in food or drink. Novel food ingredients only need to show they are safe and not that they work in a particular way for approval in the EU. But the question of whether parasitic worms can treat autoimmune disorders remains open.

‘A range of trials with various kinds of live worms have been conducted or are in progress,’ said research director Gabriele Sorci at the University of Burgundy, France.

But Dr Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas, suggests approving live worm or worm egg treatments would be a ‘dumb idea’. ‘In my opinion, worm therapies belong in the same category of pseudoscience cult therapies as chelation therapy (a process for ridding the body of metals) for autism,’ he said.

Prof Aaron Blackwell at the University of California said dangerous side effects might occur if worms can move into other parts of the body, but this is very rare. ‘Probably, taking these eggs may be no worse than many other dietary supplements that many people use regularly,’ he said.

Stem cells offer jab relief for type 1 diabetics

TYPE 1 diabetics could be freed from having to inject insulin if stem cell-derived implants work.

Californian company ViaCyte is awaiting results from two volunteers who have had its credit card-sized implants placed just below the skin. The cells on the implants mature into islet cells that make insulin in the pancreas — the function that fails in type 1 sufferers, one in ten of the world’s 422million diabetics. The islet cells could then release insulin to control blood sugar.

‘If it works, we would call it a functional cure,’ said ViaCyte president Paul Laikind.

The zero-ic efforts of bees to learn maths

ONCE you understand what zero is, there’s nothing to it.

But grasping the concept can be difficult even for humans, with children learning to recognise 0 later than other numbers.

Now researchers have made the surprising discovery that bees can get their tiny brains around it.

Scarlett Howard and her colleagues at RMIT University in Melbourne put the insects to the test by training them to differentiate between numbers.

The bees would be confronted by two platforms, one with a larger number of objects placed on it than the other. They learned that if they flew to the platform with fewer objects, they would find a sugary treat. The researchers continued the experiment by giving the bees a choice of a platform with no objects on it and another with two or three.

They picked the empty platform most of the time — showing they knew none was less than one. When given a choice between no objects and one, they were less accurate and took longer to decide but still picked zero most often.

It is the first time invertebrates have been shown to grasp zero. Chimps and a parrot called Alex have mastered it in previous tests.

‘We still have some things to figure out about why bees can do this,’ Ms Howard said.

Attention-hungry mobile apps drain your productivity

APPS are needy — and ditching their notifications can have a profound effect on our lives.

Spanish firm Telefónica could not find anyone to take part in its Do Not Disturb Challenge — one week without notifications — until it dropped the time scale from a week to 24 hours.

Even then only 30 people took part. They were anxious about what they were missing but less distracted and more productive.

Two years on, ten volunteers have changed how they manage notifications, suggesting a short break is a powerful intervention.

Write messages in the sky with your phone

Air message: Batman gets the call to duty

AN ‘augmented reality’ app will allow users to place adverts or write messages in the sky that will be seen by other users when they point their phones upwards.

The developers of the app, called Skrite, say it is being used by small firms in Florida but think it could be attractive to big brand advertising, creating images in the sky similar to Batman’s Bat-Signal.

Skrite co-founder Arshia Siddique says AR is a ‘third space’ — after the physical world and the internet — just waiting to be ‘filled with content’.

It is only the latest app getting ready for this. ‘We’re there already,’ says Danny Lopez of the London-based AR firm Blippar, which lets users see reviews and recommendations overlaid onto shops and landmarks.

Last month global law firm Reed Smith outlined legal issues thrown up by advertising in augmented reality. For example, they foresee ‘ambush’ campaigns to trump official sponsorship of events. The firm’s Gregor Pryor added: ‘The mischief might be endless.’

Calm to the core… hot yoga cuts depression

And relax: Yoga had positive health benefits

EMOTIONAL eating, dwelling on negative feelings and other signs of depression seem to be reduced by doing yoga in a hot room.

A study of 52 women with signs of depression found significant improvements in those who tried Bikram hot yoga.

Half the women went to two classes a week for two months while a control group did no yoga at all. The average decrease in stress and emotional eating in those who attended classes was almost three times that of the group who didn’t, the joint San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Alliant International University research found.

The study also found that the yoga group focused less on negative feelings and their causes.

Based on stories in the latest issue of New Scientist, which is available in the shops now. For more cool science and technology stories go to newscientist.com