Eggs from a parasitic worm may hold the key to treating inflammatory conditions such as lung diseases and psoriasis.
Schistosoma mansoni causes serious infections
Scientists at Trinity College, Dublin, focused on the worm, Schistosoma mansoni, which infects humans.
They found it releases a molecule with strong anti-inflammatory qualities which are particularly effective in battling against acute inflammations.
The study, which could lead to new treatments, is published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.
Researcher Dr Padraic Fallon said: "This study is particularly exciting as it harnesses how the worm modifies immunity in our bodies to stimulate protection from undesirable inflammation.
"There is a clear potential to build new treatments for major disease of man using this approach.
"In effect I see the worm as the 'drug cabinet' of the future."
Schistosome worms infect over 250 million people in tropical countries.
There is evidence that infection with schistosomes may protect humans from other disease, such as allergies.
Dr Fallon's research group has already shown that experimental infections with schistosomes can prevent anaphylaxis and asthma-like lung inflammation.
However, infection with the worm can cause illness and death, so it would be inappropriate to infect people intentionally.
Therefore the researchers are trying to identify what part of the worm can be used to treat such disease as allergies and inflammatory bowel disease.
Dr Fallon said: "Our strategy is to develop new drugs for human diseases by exploiting mechanisms and molecules that worms have developed over millions of years of co-evolution with man."
Dr Michael Doenhoff, of the University of Bangor, is working on the same worm, hoping to show that it could be used to lower cholesterol levels and thus cut the risk of heart disease.
He said many scientists across the world were testing the potential medical properties of parasitic worms.
For instance, a US team is infecting volunteers with an intestinal round worm, and a team in Nottingham is conducting similar experiments with hookworms.
Dr Doenhoff said while bacteria and viruses tended to cause short-term infections in humans, worms, and some rudimentary protozoan creatures, often had a longer term relationship with their host.
"They must be incredibly well adapted to living inside our bodies," he said.
"And part of that adaptation must involve modulation of the immune response."