TED Conversations

Anna Crist

student researcher , University of Oregon

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Purell now, Bacteri-ell later?

The hygiene hypothesis, the idea that “too much cleanliness prevents the development of a well-balanced immune response”(Sironi and Clerici, 2010), has received a lot of support and also criticism. It has recently been challenged by the hypothesis of “early immune challenge”, which states that a lack of appropriate immune stimulation during early childhood might account for the increased development of allergies in industrialized countries (Kramer et al, 2013). This proposal places less emphasis on excessive hygienic practices and focuses more on the insufficient exposure to specific environmental microbes, particularly those from non-urban environments, as the reason behind the rise of atopic disease. While different, both hypotheses point to the beneficial health affects of some microbes.

What do you think is the reason for increased allergy levels in industrialized countries? Do you think that a concoction of the “right” microbial species in the form of a lotion, drink, or inhalant (aka "Bacteri-ell") could be a future replacement for natural exposure to beneficial microbes?
Instead of using hand sanitizers like Purell, do you see a future where people from some regions of the world are unsanitizing their hands with “Bacteri-ell”?


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    Apr 29 2013: I don't think increased allergy levels can necessarily be ascribed to too much cleanliness, but I do think that exposure to the right microbes must be important. It's a definite possibility that at some time in the future, people who were not naturally exposed to the necessary microbes could be exposed later in life through some alternative mechanism. For example, one thing I've been reading about often in the news and during research for other classes is "hookworm therapy". While not a microbe (the hookworm is a nematode), hookworms, like some microbes, have been shown to have beneficial effects for people with allergies or overactive immune systems (Strachan 1989). People that are infected with hookworms are less likely to have asthma or hay fever. Most of the reading about hookworms I've done has been in regards to Celiac Disease (gluten allergy), where in trials they have found that giving a patient hookworms has greatly improved their condition (the same has been found for type I diabetes). Then again, in developing countries hookworms are a leading cause of death in children, so obviously this method would need to be carefully controlled.
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      Apr 30 2013: I completely agree with your first sentence! Here is a great supporting quote I didn't end up including in my conversation starter. "The risk of developing allergies is not necessarily caused by a lack of bugs and parasites in the environment per se, but rather by a lack of certain organisms that have, over the course of evolution, trained our immune system to be more tolerant.” (Rook et al, 2009)

      I, too, came across some articles about the benefits of hookworm infection. Thanks for bringing up an interesting point!
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      Apr 30 2013: They have also started using hookworms in experimental treatments for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) which I found really interesting. This makes me wonder if there are other ways such as introducing good microbes in later stages of diseases that could "cure" or lead to a remission of these diseases. The problem being that we currently know very little about the good and bad bacteria in our bodies. Some bacteria are even both good and bad depending on conditions.
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        Apr 30 2013: I came across an article that detailed the experience of Jasper Lawrence, a man who infected himself with hookworms in Africa in order to treat his severe allergies and is now selling the hookworms to others for similar reasons. However, the FDA did not approve of him doing this and now he is on the run from the law, so I think until we can somehow make the idea of 'good' bacteria or parasites a social norm, people won't necessarily agree with it (unless they are desperate like in Lawrence and his clients' cases). The article mentions the hygiene hypothesis and Lawrence is quoted saying that "everyone is concerned about biodiversity in the outside world, and saving the rainforest, but we've also screwed up the biodiversity inside us." I think this is an interesting point that relates to the question at hand.

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