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The Worm Wagon

The Worm Wagon

By Sheena Cruickshank, a lecturer at the Manchester Immunology Group in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. Sheena’s research focuses on how immune responses start and on predicting how some people are resistant to infection and others are not and get long term or chronic inflammation. When not telling people about worms she runs around after her two active football mad kids and enjoys cycling.


I study worms. Not the worms that you’d find in your compost heap, but parasitic worms such as whipworm, roundworm and hookworm.

Parasitic worms are a huge problem worldwide. Gut worm infections are the major reason that kids in some of the poorest countries miss out on education. In fact, we have been dogged by worm infections throughout our evolution. All human populations have them, as do our ape cousins, and worms are no respecter of authority - even Richard III had them!

Nowadays, in the West we have got rid of most gut worm infections, although many Western children will suffer from threadworm – a species that can cause a rather sleepless night and a very itchy bum, as the females travel down the gut at night-time to lay their eggs in the anus.

Sheena (centre) with her colleagues Kathryn and Jo, with some roundworms! Image credit: Mark Waugh

However, since Westerners lost the major gut worms (roundworm, whipworm and hookworm), there has been an emergence of diseases such as asthma, allergies and autoimmune diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease. These typically Western diseases are not an issue in the still wormy countries. So, one question that our team has been trying to answer is whether there is a link between gut worms and allergies? More and more scientists think there is. In fact deliberately infecting people with worms – worm therapy – is being trialled for a host of Western diseases.

Let's talk about worms

Our research is mostly funded by the public so it's important to show people what we are doing, and I believe everyone should have the opportunity to learn about science whether they become scientists or not.

To take our research out to the general public, we created the Worm Wagon, which we’ve used with a wide range of groups, including schools, music festivals and community groups. The Worm Wagon is a real team effort and over the years we have amassed a host of props and games that are targeted at all ages that explain specific research findings. For example, we encourage people to pull worms out of a bin full of home-made mucus. This simple game highlights the role of gut mucus in protecting against infection – a discovery from the Manchester Immunology Group. We know that people not only learn things from the Worm Wagon but they also remember important points. At a recent event, a 10 year old boy, who had seen the Worm Wagon before, explained to me why mucus is important and how it changes in infection.

Science can be off-putting for many people and often they fear that we scientists will just bombard them with endless science jargon. So, rather than just talking at people, we use visual aids and pictures that promote discussion and enable us to take our science to diverse and varied audiences.

Engaging hard-to-reach audiences

The link between science and art has lead us to use Rangoli, a traditional Asian art form. Rangoli involves using coloured pigments or materials that are spread on the ground to create colourful murals. Importantly, many people can work together to create a Rangoli, making for a truly interactive art form.

We first piloted this concept with an Asian community group of immigrant women and their children. Working with immigrants from wormy countries is a great opportunity for us to learn first-hand about worm infection, as well as to tell them more about it.

A Worm Wagon participant adds to the Rangoli

Following discussions about worm infection, the group designed worm inspired-Rangoli templates that were incorporated into the final Rangoli. We then held focus discussions with the community group to better understand their concerns and questions about gut worm infection. The latest step in this project will be to partner science literacy (focusing on worm infection and immunity) with English education using English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at Bolton College. This is an incredible opportunity to learn from these people’s experiences.

Hearing about worm infection and the impact on daily life has motivated many of us to change our research. For example, my research is now focused on developing “biomarkers” to predict who will deal with worm infections badly and become seriously ill with long-term gut inflammation. Because, the gut inflammation resembles inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), it turns out we can use these biomarkers to predict which IBD patients won’t respond to particular drugs. This means they can be provided with the best treatment possible before they get too ill.

My colleagues, Professor Kathyrn Else and Dr Joanne Pennock, are working on vaccine research and making some exciting developments in preventing worm eggs hatching. So our Worm Wagon has gone from being something that we thought would let us tell people about our research, to something that has helped shape what we do in the lab!


Sheena Cruickshank won the Society of Biology Science Communication Award for an established researcher in 2013. Follow the Manchester Immunology Group on Twitter to hear more about their public engagement activities.

Join the debate...


Kristine Spencer's picture

You are doing wonderful work, but I do feel the need to enlighten the scientific community, on how wrong they are about the perception that major worm infections have been eradicated in the West. It is so obvious that the reason that there are illnesses like asthma, allergies, and auto immune disease in the US, is due to the fact that they quit testing for it, and now we just call the worms in the lungs (asthma), the systemic worm infections (allergies and auto immune illness). I have all of these, but I didn't have them until I was infected by parasites from a tray cat sleeping on my face. I pull worms from my face, but because that doesn't happen in the US, I must be halucinating, so I no longer mention the worms to my doctor, and try to figure out how to clear my facial lesions. The infectious medicine specialist won't see me, since I have never traveled outside of the country. The sadest part of all is that I have infected my 6 year old grandson, who has now been diagnosed with these types of illnesses. He has literally had to have a steroid injection inside of his throat, because it was swelling shut and he couldn't breath, but they feel it must all be from his asthma (which is completely ludicris). The medical standards keep a normal doctor from testing, and if he does go out on a limb to run a test, it goes to the same lab that everyone in the US uses... The pharmacutical corporations are in their pocket, with mutual back scratching going on, the test will always come back negative, no matter what. I'm not the only one to feel this waY, it is a big majority of the people, but there is nothing that anyone can do. If science doesn't bring light to this situation, mankind will most likely be in a bad situation, in the near future. We are CURRENTLY seeing fungus wipe out whole species, this is a big indicator of what happened with the dinosaurs. Literally whole species have and are becoming extinct right now, we need to wake up. Science has now discovered that when the disasters happened, the dinosaurs were ALREADY DEAD from illness. This is precisely what is happening now, so unless we help our european (western countries) to be healthy from parasites and fungus, we will be completely weakened, and if any of us are surving when disasters do strike, we won't be able to survive the hard task of trying to make it each day. Fungus and parasites generally come together, because the fungus shows up to attack the parasites. My doctor just saved my life with some fungal pills, he was only allowed to perscribe for three months. It hasn't completely cleared the fungus, but it will just come back anyway, due to the parasites that aren't going to get treated, due to me living in a westen country. My whole family became sick actually, at around the same time, we all lived with that cat and a untreated dog. We were also exposed to a swimming pool with schisostoma years ago, that the CDC had shut down. We didn't realize until years later, but now no doctors will test us for any of these parasites. The doctors will only do 1 fecal test, if it doesn't show up, or isn't recognised by the one lab that they all use, we are out of luck for any kind of treatment. I just wanted to let you know that if it seems ironic that only our countries have these illnesses, and only our counties don't have the worms, we need to realize as a civilized scientific community, that isn't rational thinking, and there is a big reason that this seems very ironic. It's very obvious to me, that it is just called something else in our countries, so that we can just throw medicine at the people, and never cure them. I am on government disability now, I used to work for the Royal Bank of Canada (in the US). How will our countries pay for all of the disabled people in the future, with the course that we are on. I see only potential for future economic devastation, due to this problem alone. We need to get up to speed with the times, so that we can face real problems that we may see in the future, not keeping the medical and pharmacutical companies in business. We could be putting our resources into future technology instead. Just wanted to share these thoughts, and it wouldn't surprise me if this new illness "Morgellons", isn't just an actual parasitic/fungal infection that is going untreated in many people, and they are being called crazy.. very sad..
Thank you for you time, and the wonderful work that you are doing, I hope that maybe you can make some changes.
Kristine Spencer

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