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05/28/2008 07:00:00

Getting Better with a Little Help from Our "Micro" Friends

PASADENA, Calif.-- A naturally occurring molecule made by symbiotic gut bacteria may offer a new type of treatment for inflammatory bowel disease, according to scientists at the California Institute of Technology.

"Most people tend to think of bacteria as insidious organisms that only make us sick," says Sarkis K. Mazmanian, an assistant professor of biology at Caltech, whose laboratory examines the symbiotic relationship between "good" bacteria and their mammalian hosts. Instead, he says, "bacteria can be beneficial and actively promote health."

For example, the 100 trillion bacteria occupying the human gut have evolved along with the human digestive and immune systems for millions of years. Some harmful microbes are responsible for infection and acute disease, while "other bacteria, the more intelligent ones, have taken the evolutionary route of shaping their environment by positively interacting with the host immune system to promote health, which gives them an improved place to live; it's like creating bacterial nirvana," says Mazmanian.

If bacteria are actively modifying the gut, their work would have to be mediated by molecules. In their recent work, Mazmanian and his colleagues have identified one such molecule, a sugar called polysaccharide A, or PSA, which is produced by the symbiotic gut bacterium Bacteroides fragilis. They have termed this molecule a "symbiosis factor," and predict that many other bacterial compounds with diverse beneficial activities await discovery.

To identify the molecule and its action, the collaborative team, which included Dennis L. Kasper, Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School, used experimental mice and induced changes to their intestinal bacteria by exposing them to a pathogenic bacterium called Helicobacter hepaticus. This microbe causes a disease in the mice that is similar to Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. However, when the animals were co-colonized with B. fragilis, they were protected from the disease--as were animals that were given oral doses of just the PSA molecule.

In particular, Mazmanian and his colleagues found that PSA induced particular immune-system cells called CD4+ T cells to produce interleukin-10 (IL-10), a molecule that has previously been shown to suppress inflammation--and offer protection from inflammatory bowel disease. "Thus, bacteria help reprogram our own immune system to promote health," he says.

"The most immediate and obvious implication is that PSA may potentially be developed as a natural therapeutic for inflammatory bowel disease," says Mazmanian.

Inflammatory bowel disease, a constellation of illnesses that cause inflammation in the intestines, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, is estimated to affect one million Americans. The rates of inflammatory bowel diseases have skyrocketed in recent years; for example, the incidence of Crohn's disease, a condition that causes debilitating pain, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal symptoms, has increased by 400 percent over the past 20 years.

The current research, along with other work by Mazmanian and June L. Round, a Caltech postdoctoral researcher, suggests that the interplay between various groups of bacteria living in the intestines has profound effects on human health.

This notion gels with the so-called "hygiene hypothesis." The hypothesis, first proposed two decades ago, links modern practices like sanitation, vaccination, a Western diet, and antibiotic use, which reduce bacterial infections, to the increased prevalence of a variety of illnesses in the developed world, including inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and Type 1 diabetes. However, it is now clear that increased living standards and antibacterial drugs affect not only infectious microbes, but all of the beneficial ones that we may depend on for our well-being.

"Through societal measures we have changed our association with the microbial world in a very short time span. We don't have the same contact with microbes as we have for millions of years--we just live too clean now," Mazmanian says. So while it is useful to eliminate disease-causing organisms, "perhaps disease results from the absence of beneficial bacteria and their good effects," he suggests. "This study is the first demonstration of that. What it hopefully will do is allow people to re-evaluate our opinions of bacteria. Not all are bad and some, maybe many, are beneficial."

The article, "A microbial symbiosis factor prevents intestinal inflammatory disease," will be featured on the cover of the May 29 issue of the journal Nature. Mazmanian's coauthors are June L. Round of Caltech and Dennis L. Kasper of Harvard Medical School. 

Written by Kathy Svitil