Medicine is better than ever, thank goodness. And those of us lucky to be alive (and in the right countries and societies) have access to the best medical science and technology in history. But curing diseases is not all lab-coated researchers moving colored liquid from one test tube to another, as every science scene in movie history would have you believe.
It can get weird.
In the battle against the diseases that trouble us the most, whether because they’re so common, so deadly, or both, scientists will try almost anything. Potential cures come from everywhere. And sometimes the human body does the same, miraculously curing itself due to some obscure reason or another. No matter how it happens, a disease cured is a disease cured, and someone lives to tell their strange tale. Here are ten of those tales, some of the most surprising ways in which a disease has been cured.
10 Allergies—Parasitic Worms
Since the 70s, scientists and doctors have noted connections between people infected with parasitic worms and lack of allergies. The most common connection is between hookworm infection and lack of hay fever, even if it had been present before the worms. For some people, this is true. A hookworm infection cures allergies.
I stress some people because there have been many, including those in several large-scale trials, for whom worm infection did not relieve any allergy symptoms. And yet there have undoubtedly been many for whom it has worked. Back in 1976, British scientist Jonathan Turton, who had suffered from hay fever previously, swallowed a hookworm and was quickly and thoroughly cured for the two years the worms stayed in. Since then, dozens of scientists have done the same to themselves and found similar results.
9 Blindness—Reengineered Viruses
Several teams of researchers across the world have used one virus or another to cure congenital forms of blindness. One example is the team at the University of California Berkeley, which was able to almost completely cure test subjects (in this case monkeys) of two congenital diseases which cause blindness: X-linked retinoschisis and Leber’s congenital amaurosis.
Those inflicted with the disease essentially just have a non-working version of a normal gene needed for eyesight. The UCB team inserted normal, functioning copies of the gene into viruses and injected them near the retina. The viruses then did what viruses do and injected their own genetic material into the retinal cells, including the functioning human eye gene, causing the retinal cells to gain the functioning gene. In the test monkeys, eyesight returned almost completely to normal.
8 Mental Illness—A Laser Lobotomy
You might have thought lobotomies were outlawed or otherwise forcibly stopped a long time ago, probably around the deinstitutionalization of insane asylums in the 60s. You’d be mostly right, as by the 70s virtually all traditional lobotomies had ceased. But in the last decade, with an exponential rise in cutting-edge technology, as well as in knowledge of brain structure, psychosurgeries have become popular again.
Though the surgeries are still controversial—they do, after all, remind people of some of the most barbaric medicine in history—they now have a solid track record of working. Many of them use fine lasers to precisely target small areas of the brain and remove, or ablate, tissue known to cause undesirable behavior, most commonly OCD. The surgeries are always used as a last resort and only in extreme cases, but they truly do work. Over half of all patients recover to completely normal brain function.
7 Bacterial Infection—A Poop Transplant
C. diff., short for Clostridium difficile colitis, is a potentially serious condition where your gut bacteria are out of whack. Usually due to antibiotic use, the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut die off and one bad bacteria, C. diff., takes over. In some cases, more antibiotics can actually help by killing the C. diff., but most require further action. In this case, a poop transplant.
During an otherwise normal colonoscopy, doctors will insert fecal matter from healthy donors, full of the ‘good’ gut bacteria, up into the colon. This resets the gut microbiome and helps it reestablish in healthy proportions. As weird as it sounds, fecal transplants are very effective treatments for C. diff.
6 Cardiac Arrest—Intentional Hypothermia
Cardiac arrest is an extremely dangerous condition in which the heart’s electrical system malfunctions, stopping its beating, followed quickly by a loss of breathing and consciousness. It results in death roughly 88% of the time. Even in cases where medical personnel are able to restart the heart, patients often die from prolonged lack of oxygen to the brain.
To counter this, doctors began inducing hypothermia in patients. If the heart is able to be restarted but the patient is still unconscious, they can be placed into hypothermia, their body lowered to between 89 and 93 degrees, for about a day. This prevents much of the damage to the brain and greatly increases the chance they’ll wake up at all.
5 Necrosis & Gangrene—Maggots
Like the lobotomy, the use of maggots to consume dead tissue is considered an obsolete, barbaric form of medicine. But also like the lobotomy, maggots have found a recent resurgence in popularity within mainstream medicine and have shown solid results.
Maggots originally fell out of favor due to 1. being gross, and 2. being supplanted by antibiotics. Ironically, it is antibiotic resistance that allowed maggots to make their comeback. Doctors now use maggots as a treatment for necrosis in some cases where antibiotics are ineffective; the maggots’ efficient removal of the necrotic tissue can prevent it from spreading and therefore even prevent amputation.
4 Skin Cancer—Herpes
Melanoma is a dangerous, fast-spreading form of skin cancer. It begins by infecting the pigment-producing cells in your skin, which is why you might hear people worrying over raised or oddly colored moles. But trials have shown an unusual medication to be an effective treatment. That medication is herpes.
Researchers at UCLA conducted a two-year study in which they used a modified version of the herpes virus to treat advanced melanoma. The virus was modified to target the cancer cells and 1. attract the body’s immune cells to the cancer cells, and 2. kill the cancer cells directly. A full two-thirds of patients receiving the modified herpes alongside cancer meds fared better than those using cancer meds alone.
3 Leukemia—A Pneumonia Appetizer
Leukemias are types of cancer that infect the blood and can be extremely debilitating. Though modern science and technology have dramatically increased their survivability, it is still around the 50% mark, meaning the best care in the world can get you up to the odds of a coin toss. And though extremely rare, spontaneous remissions do occur. It turns out a lot of these remissions might be due to pneumonia.
A 2014 study from Washington University compiled every instance of spontaneous remission for an aggressive type of leukemia called acute myeloid leukemia, a total of 46 cases. They found that in an impressive 90% of cases, the patients had recovered from an infection, most commonly pneumonia, shortly before the cancer diagnosis. It’s thought that, at least for AML, a recent immune response makes battling the tumors a heck of a lot easier.
2 SARS—It Was Just Too Good
From 2002-2004, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), wreaked havoc worldwide, but mainly affected China and other southeast Asian countries. A few concerning cases were reported in Canada and the US and 27 other countries.
SARS caused a great deal of international concern due to its novel nature (it was the first of the SARS family, hence its type-name) and high case fatality rate of 11%. But for the same reason it frightened scientists, SARS disappeared quickly and relatively easily; it was just too deadly.
SARS, when compared to related viruses like COVID (itself a SARS variant), was much more severe. Those who contracted it showed symptoms much more quickly and much more severely, and so it made them easy to identify and quarantine. That and, although it is grim to say, the higher proportion of casualties meant fewer vectors for the disease to move through the world and also less chance for the virus to adapt in partially-cured hosts.
1 Brain-eating Amoeba—Unknown
12-year-old Kali Hardig is a medical anomaly. She survived parasitic meningitis caused by a contraction of brain-eating amoebas, which has a survival rate of less than 1%. At that point, only two out of 128 infected patients had ever survived. Kali became number three, and no one really knows how.
The amoeba in question is Naegleria fowleri, which is believed to be found in warm freshwater, and it is thought that Kali contracted it while at Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her symptoms sprung up within a day and quickly became critical. Certainly, her doctors deserve all the credit in the world for their unceasing, comprehensive care, but there was no standardized treatment plan for this extremely rare condition. In the end, as Kali’s mother put it, “it’s just a miracle.”