It's what's inside that counts- microbiome research is
starting to pin down how gut bacteria contribute
to a variety of disease states.
Increasingly sophisticated means of profiling the multitude of bacterial species found in the gut microbiome and the metabolites they produce are beginning to identify factors that contribute to inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, metabolic diseases and how individuals respond to cancer immunotherapy.
The role of the microbiome in gut conditions has, as might be expected, received particular attention. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) falls largely into two distinct types: ulcerative colitis (UC), which is confined to the large intestine; and Crohn's disease (CD), which may affect any part of the digestive tract. Both are chronic conditions characterised by periods of remission and flare, and are treatable but not curable. IBD is immune-mediated, although the trigger(s) remain largely undefined: genetics; the integrity of the gut surface, and environmental factors (diet, stress, antibiotic use) which may change the gut flora all play a part.
Analysis of the gut microbiome in IBD sufferers suggests that both UC and CD are associated with different "microbial signatures", with certain bacterial species being present in abundance, and other species being absent or present only in low numbers. Bacterial degradation of mucin, a protective glycoprotein which lines and protects the gut is one possible contributory mechanism, as are changes in microbial fatty acid and amino acid biosynthesis. Association is by no means proof of causation- changes in the microbiome- “dysbiosis”- might result in chronic inflammation, but the reverse may also be the case.
Alteration of the microbiome through antibiotic treatment is associated with better clinical outcomes in IBD, but also appears to be a risk factor for the development of CD. There is no compelling evidence that probiotics- the "good bacteria" of marketing campaigns- are of benefit in IBD. While understandably unappealing, re-balancing the gut flora through "faecal microbial transplantation" (FMT) has been shown to be of benefit in small studies involving IBD patients.
A recent study throws light on the relationship between one particular bacterial metabolite, ascorbate (vitamin C) and IBD. Microbially produced vitamin C does not contribute to our nutritional requirement but its presence in the gut may be significant. University of California researchers investigated 139 different microbial metabolites associated with CD for their effects on human T cells which mediate inflammatory processes. Fifteen metabolites were identified as having an effect on T cells, of which only ascorbate served as an inhibitor of T cell activation, possibly through altering glycolysis, a key energy-producing pathway.
That certain bacterial species associated with CD are capable of ascorbate production adds a little more circumstantial weight to the hypothesis, but further elucidation of the relationship between disease and gut ascorabate levels and the presence or absence of ascorbate-producing species is required before practical use can be made of this observation.
The enzyme indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) has featured in a couple of my blog pieces as a target of great interest in cancer immunotherapy. IDO is an important regulator of tryptophan levels and increased IDO activity contributes to unwanted immunosuppression within the tumour microenvironment. The clinical performance of IDO inhibiting drugs in combination with established immuno-oncology agents has been less than stellar, leading to the large scale abandonment of further development [IDO a no-go: what’s up next in immuno-oncology combination therapy?]
Intriguingly and unexpectedly, IDO, or more accurately, the lack of it, has been found to have a beneficial effect on gut microbes in an animal model of obesity. IDO activity is increased in obesity and French researchers have shown that IDO action in the gut results in a "rewiring" of tryptophan metabolism which in turn impacts on insulin sensitivity, lipid metabolism in the liver, the integrity of the gut surface and levels of chronic inflammation.
These effects are mediated through production of IL-22, a signalling protein involved in immune regulation and liver and gut epithelial cell survival. Knocking out IDO activity allows gut bacteria to direct tryptophan metabolism in a benign manner. The composition of the gut microbiome was found to be different between mice with active and inactive IDO.
It's a leap to suppose that IDO inhibitors might eventually be repurposed as treatments for obesity, but better understanding of the interplay between "immunometabolic" mediators such as IDO and the microbiome could open up paths to better therapies or means of either preventing metabolic disease or identifying individuals at higher risk of obesity.
Photo credit: Darryl Leja, National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health.