The primary focus of our laboratory, directed by William Parker, deals with the concept of “evolutionary mismatch” and how that affects immune function in the modern world. An evolutionary mismatch is simply described as a condition in which an organism’s current environment leads to disease because it does not match the environment which drove the evolution of that organism’s genes. Evolutionary mismatches in Western countries lead to a variety of consequences, including sedentary lifestyles, vitamin D deficiency, chronic psychological stress, and inflammatory diets, which in turn lead to inflammatory diseases. We are interested in normalizing immune function in Western society, in particular by dealing with one of the most profound and impactful consequences of evolutionary mismatch, “biome depletion”. Topics of our research, within the context described above, are as follows:
- Biome depletion, the loss of biodiversity from the ecosystem of the human body.
- Gut function and the gut-brain barrier.
- The induction of autism.
- Cardiovascular disease
The laboratory also has a long standing and productive collaboration with Shu Lin, a thoracic surgeon at Duke. In addition to our work on immune function and evolutionary mismatch, we are continually involved with work on Dr. Lin’s projects.
The laboratory is most widely known for its discovery of the apparent function of the human appendix. The laboratory is also known for its leadership in understanding immune function in wild rodents, and how that function contrasts with immune function in laboratory animals. More recently, the laboratory has become a leader in understanding the effects of helminths (intestinal worms) on improving immune function in humans. Several collaborative projects using laboratory animal models in neurobiology (with Staci Bilbo) and using socio-medical studies in humans (with Janet Wilson) have yielded exciting results, pointing toward the idea that healthy neuropsychiatric function can be achieved by adding organisms to the gut that are recently absent following hundreds of millions of years of symbiosis with our ancestors. Based on data obtained thus far, neuropsychiatric conditions that may be treated with “helminthic therapy” include migraine headaches, anxiety disorders, and depression.
At the same time, we have confirmed that helminths can be used to treat a wide range of modern inflammatory diseases, including autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis and allergic conditions such as hayfever and peanut allergies.
The laboratory has worked with a wide range of students since 1994, including high school students, undergraduates, and a variety of more advanced students. Projects are tailored to each student’s or trainee’s needs, duration of association with the laboratory, and experience.
If you have questions regarding our laboratory, please contact William Parker at 919-681-3886 or at William.Parker@Duke.edu.