inflammatory disease

Helminths suppress the immune system by modulating the gut microbiota

The nematode  Heligmosomoides polygyrus , which was used in this study, seen into an optical microscope. Taken from the digestive tractus of a rodent.

The nematode Heligmosomoides polygyrus, which was used in this study, seen into an optical microscope. Taken from the digestive tractus of a rodent.

Helminths, or gut worms, are known to be powerful suppressants of the immune system.  In fact, this is the basis for using helminth therapy for various autoimmune conditions, such as IBD.  Still though, the mechanisms for helminth immunosuppression is unknown.  There have been some studies that suggest the worms are secreting molecules that have this anti-inflammatory effect, but this may not tell the whole story.  Researchers from Switzerland hypothesized that because helminths and our gut bacteria evolved together, it was likely that the helminths were modulating the bacterial gut microbiome, and that this modulation was anti-inflammatory.  They tested and published results that support this idea in the latest issue of Cell Immunity.

The scientists started by showing the efficacy of a mouse helminth, Heligmosomoides polygyrus bakeri (Hpb), in reducing inflammation in mouse models of asthma.  The scientists infected mice with the parasite and exposed those mice, along with non-infected control mice, to dust mites in order to elicit and immune response.  The scientists observed that the Hpb mice had much lower circulating levels of specific cytokines and immune cells after exposure to dust mites than the controls.  Next, the scientist gave the Hpb infected mice antibiotics, which eliminated the gut bacteria but left the helminths intact.  They then exposed these mice and control mice to dust mites to elicit the immune response.  Interestingly, while the helminths alone did decrease the levels of some inflammatory molecules and cells, inflammation still occurred, similar to what was observed in controls.  This meant that the gut bacteria play a role in modulating the helminthic immune suppression.  In order to validate these findings, the scientists then performed fecal microbiota transplants from control mice or helminth infected mice into germ free mice (with no worms).  After, the challenged these mice with house dust mites and discovered that the gut bacteria alone created an immune suppression in the mice, even in the absence of the worms.

The researchers attempted to identify which bacteria may be causing this immune suppression, and measured the microbiomes of the mice.  They noted that higher levels of Clostridiales occurred in the Hpb mice.  They then measured the levels of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the mice’s guts, because Clostridiales are known to produce SCFAs.  They noticed that higher levels of SCFAs, which have previously been linked to immune suppression, did occur in higher levels in mice with Hpb compared to controls.  The scientists then studied this connection between worm infection and increase in SCFAs in pigs and humans.  Remarkably, the increase in SCFAs in helminth-infected subjects compared to controls was observed across species, suggesting the immune suppressing helminth phenomenon is extensible to many mammals.  The researchers even investigated possible mechanisms for why SCFAs were able to suppress the immune system.  They discovered the SCFAs were binding specific receptors that modulate T-cells, and more depth on this issue can be found by reading the paper. 

This study is quite important as it shows that helminths in combination with the bacterial microbiome are important to immune suppression.  This suggests that future therapeutics that may take advantage of helminth-derived molecules may not be as effective.  It does, however, support helminth therapy as an immune suppressant.  However, helminths are also very dangerous and can lead to various diseases.   So, while clinical trials that use helminths are underway, there are still no approved uses for worms.  

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Our gut microbiome may be contributing to some forms of blindness

Our eyes are considered ‘immune privileged’, which means that they are generally protected from our own immune system.  The major mechanism for eye immune privilege comes from a tight physical barrier that separates our lymphocytes, such as T cells, from the actual eye.  T cells do have the ability to cross this barrier, but they first must come in contact with, and be activated by eye antigens.  These antigens are sequestered on the opposite side of the barrier, in the eye, so that they are not exposed to the T cells.  There are diseases in which these retinal T cells do mysteriously become activated though, and they cause an inflammatory disease known as uveitis.  Uveitis is responsible for causing blindness and other eye issues in many people, but again the cause for the T cell activation is largely unknown.  Researchers at the NIH recently created a mouse model for uveitis, and were able to test a variety of factors that may be activating the T cells.  To their surprise, the gut microbiota seemed to be activating the T cells.  They published the results of their study last week in the journal Immunity.

The researchers first created a mouse model of uveitis where the retinal T cells spontaneously become activated.  They then noticed that the highest concentration of these T cells were near the gut, suggesting the gut bacteria were playing a role.  The scientists then treated the mice with antibiotics to decrease the gut bacterial concentration.  Although the mice still developed some symptoms of uveitis, the disease was ameliorated greatly in these mice.  As previously discussed, the normal T cell activator antigen is in the and physically separated.  In order to ensure that this antigen wasn’t somehow leaking out of the eye to activate the T cells in their model they created mice that lacked these antigens in their eye.  Still though, the mice presented symptoms of uveitis, meaning that the antigen that is activating the T cells is not from the eye, but rather is being produced somewhere else, such as the gut.  In order to firmly prove the gut bacteria’s role, the scientists showed that T cells could be activated by specific proteins from gut bacteria.  In fact, germ free mice, which otherwise would not have an ocular inflammatory response in their model, showed strong uveitis when they were given just the protein extract from other wild type mice. 

This research is the first to connect the gut microbiome with ocular autoimmune inflammation.  It presents many questions as to how to therapeutically combat this disease, perhaps through monitoring the gut microbiota for presentation of antigens that could activate these retinal T cells.  It also begs to be connected with other sites immune privilege breakdown in the body.  The fetus and placenta in pregnant women, for example, is an immune privileged space.  Immune activation of this site can sometimes lead to miscarriage.  Are gut or vaginal bacteria involved with this response, as we have discussed a few times in this blog?  In time, scientists will know enough to accurately answer this question.

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

The oral microbiome of periodontitis patients has distinct profiles dependent on disease severity

A few weeks ago we discussed periodontitis, a bacterial infection of the gums that leads to inflammation and deep pockets to develop in which harmful bacteria can colonize. Periodontitis develops in association with dramatic changes in the makeup of the oral microbiome. Smokers and diabetics are more frequently victims of the disease. The study we discussed previously was one performed by researchers in Istanbul, Turkey in which they tested whether a probiotic lozenge could improve the patients’ condition. In a different, more recently published study concerning periodontitis, researchers in Connecticut and Massachusetts looked not to change the oral microbiome of patients suffering from periodontitis, but to organize and identify the microbial characteristics of the disease.

In the study published in Plos One, seventeen subjects, 8 of whom were diabetic, with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) and seventeen subjects without CKD, 3 of whom were diabetic, were studied.  All 34 subjects suffered from periodontitis. Samples were taken from each participant, from the deepest pockets in two different areas of the mouth. DNA was then isolated and sequenced to identify microbial communities in each individual. After much statistical analysis, the researchers found that the microbial communities tended toward two clusters, A and B, with type B communities correlating with more severe periodontitis. Group A subjects had communities with greater health-associated bacteria and cluster B communities were dominated by Porphyromonas gingivalis and Tannerella forsythia. Additionally, the analysis showed that diabetes and CKD are not correlated with a certain periodontitis microbial makeup.

A set-back of this experiment is the low sample size, which makes for less meaningful statistical analysis. Greater sample sizes of each cluster could give stronger claim to the findings of this study. However, this study does begin to clarify the bacterial community characterization of healthy, unhealthy, and severely unhealthy oral microbiomes. In addition, the results from this study could be used to ask further questions about the disease, including questions such as: what environmental factors cause the difference in clusters A and B? Do inflammatory diseases such as CKD and diabetes have anything to do with the severity of inflammatory response of periodontitis? Further analysis may allow us to answer these tough questions.

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Immune cells are educated in the gut to not attack beneficial bacteria

The gastrointestinal tract is made up of trillions of bacteria that are largely ignored by the body’s immune system.  Why is it that the body’s immune system knows to ignore these beneficial bacteria that are so important for our ability to live a healthy life? The answer to this question could play an important role in understanding how to maintain a healthy gut and how to treat diseases. Scientists led by Gregory Sonnenberg at Weill Cornell Medical College may have answered this question in a study published last week in Science.

The researchers studied T cells, cells that are made in the thymus and are trained there to kill-off foreign microbes and other intruders that make their way into the human body. But why don’t these T cells attack helpful bacteria in the GI tract? They found that the T cells are again educated in the gut to not attack beneficial bacteria but when this education is disrupted, it can lead to disease.  For example, inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis occur when the immune system attacks the GI tract and bacteria in the GI tract.

In the thymus, T cells that could attack the body are destroyed before they are released into circulation. In the gut, a type of cell called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) educate the T cells to not attack beneficial bacteria. These ILCs had previously been found to make a physical barrier between the bacteria in the gut and the immune system.

In mice, they found that ILCs attacked T cells that were destroying beneficial bacteria and when they prevented this attack by ILCs on the T cells, severe intestinal inflammation resulted. They also looked at intestinal biopsies of young patients with Crohn’s disease. In the biopsies they found that the ILCs lacked specific molecules that are important for educating the T cells not to attack the bacteria in the gut. They found that a decrease in this molecule correlated with an increase in pro-inflammatory cells in children with Crohn’s disease.

The authors state that it may be possible to get rid of these T cells that are causing the inflammation and by doing so you may be able to help treat the disease.  By restoring this molecule (Major Histocompatibility Complex class II) that is preventing the education of the T cells, pro-inflammatory T cells may be reduced resulting in reduced intestinal inflammation.


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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.

Strange, parasitic microbiome bacteria may responsible for inflammatory diseases

Electron micrograph of a type of  Actinomyces , the genus of the natural host of TM7, discussed in the paper.

Electron micrograph of a type of Actinomyces, the genus of the natural host of TM7, discussed in the paper.

There are many bugs in the microbiome that cannot be cultivated, and thus are incredibly difficult to study using normal culturing techniques.  We only know about these bugs through DNA sequencing, and it often difficult to draw any substantial conclusions from this information.  One such group of bugs that is highly abundant in the microbiome is the bacterial phylum TM7.  TM7 has been associated with numerous inflammatory diseases, like vaginosis, inflammatory bowel diseases and periodontitis, and DNA analysis shows that this bug has the ability to create many toxins.  Studying this bug could lead to breakthroughs in microbiome diseases, but until now it was unculturable.  Recently though, a team of scientists from around the United States were able to cultivate these bacteria and in doing so learned what makes this bacteria so unique, and possibly so pathogenic.  The results were published in PNAS.

The team aimed their investigation at the oral microbiome, because TM7 is abundant in the mouth and highly associated with periodontitis.  They took samples of spit and realized that TM7 only could grow when another bacteria, Actinomyces odontolyticus, was present.  When they cultured these bacteria together in a saliva-like media they realized that the TM7 was physically attached to the surface of A. odontolyticus.  Through further experimentation they learned that TM7 could never grow on its own, and needed A. odontolyticus to replicate.  Furthermore, TM7 is parasitic, and kills A. odontolyticus when they are starved.

The researchers then investigated the pathogenicity of TM7.  They learned that TM7 can evade detection by the immune system for itself and A. odontolyticus.  They also discovered that the particular strain of TM7 they were studying was antibiotic resistant.  Furthermore, sequencing of the TM7 showed the strain had amongst the smallest genomes ever discovered, and relies on the A. odontolyticus for production of many essential molecules, like amino acids.  However, TM7’s small genome is very dense in the production of virulent molecules and toxins, perhaps necessary for its parasitic nature, which could also affect its human host.

This study raises many interesting points about pathogens in the microbiome.  DNA sequencing is a great start to defining the microbiome, but often times culture, or in this case co-culture is necessary to drill down into the true virulence of bacteria.  For instance, prior to this study A. odontolyticus was considered to be associated with many inflammatory diseases, but these researchers showed that it is likely TM7, not A. odontolyticus that is the true culprit.  Alas, the complexity of the microbiome often times reveals many more questions than answers.

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The views expressed in the blog are solely those of the author of the blog and not necessarily the American Microbiome Institute or any of our scientists, sponsors, donors, or affiliates.