Microbiome: your own personal army in disease

Bugs, germs and bacteria, or whatever you’d prefer to call them, outnumber our own body’s cells 10 to 1. But, before you panic, most of these germs mean us no harm. In fact, the vast majority offers protection from bacteria that would cause illness.

The technical term for this army of bugs is the microbiome; a delicate balance between commensal, symbiotic and even pathogenic bacteria. This internal ecosystem is unique to every individual and exists to assist with digestive absorption of nutrients by breaking down food that we don’t have the capacity to degrade. Importantly, commensal bacteria also steal nutrients from pathogenic bacteria preventing them from thriving and thus causing disease.

And it seems that this army of microbes do much more for our bodies than simply deal with alimentary issues. A research team from Ghent University, Belgium, lead by Prof Dirk Elewauthas recently shown that the microbiome of autoimmune susceptible mice can alter the production of pathogenic antibodies, thus preventing disease. What this study does suggest is that the microbiome of a mother can directly impact that of her child and thus their susceptibility to autoimmune diseases. This study suggests that the gut microbiome could be used to protect genetically susceptible individuals and their offspring from inherited autoimmune diseases.

This isn’t the first time that altering the microbiome has been shown to be beneficial in autoimmune diseases, as fecal transplants are becoming an increasingly interesting alterative therapy for a variety of diseases. It may not be long before fecal transplants from healthy individuals are used to treat patients with autoimmune diseases.

Thankfully, this research was conducted using genetically altered animals and much more work is required in human patients. However, it opens a new avenue of potential therapeutics based around every individual’s microbiome.

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James Doonan

I am a doctor of immunology with research interests in immunomodulation.
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