New studies identify role of gut bacteria in rheumatoid arthritis

12 July 2016

Scientists have discovered that bacteria found naturally in the gut may influence the development of rheumatoid arthritis in various ways, potentially opening up a new frontier for treating the degenerative inflammatory disease.

A pair of studies have been carried out by the Mayo Clinic in the US that indicate these bacteria play a vital role in causing, preventing and predicting this type of arthritis, meaning they could represent a potentially valuable new target for future research.

These new studies build on previous research by the same team, which highlighted intestinal bacteria as a possible cause of rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the fact that testing for specific gut microbiota can help predict and prevent the onset of the condition.

The first of the two papers, which is published in Genome Medicine, examined rheumatoid arthritis patients and relatives alongside a healthy control group with the aim of finding a biomarker to predict people's susceptibility to rheumatoid arthritis.

It was shown that an excess of certain rare forms of bacteria can cause a microbial imbalance that is characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis, with a particular association seen between the gut microbe Collinsella and arthritis. The presence of these bacteria could pave the way for new approaches to diagnosing patients and reducing imbalances that cause rheumatoid arthritis before it can develop into something more serious.

Meanwhile, the second study - published in Arthritis and Rheumatology - saw a group of arthritis-susceptible mice treated with a bacterium called Prevotella histicola, with the outcomes compared to those of a group that did not receive treatment.

It was shown that therapy based on this bacterium - which is found naturally in a healthy human gut - resulted in decreased symptom frequency and severity, and fewer inflammatory conditions associated with rheumatoid arthritis, while also reducing the number of side effects such as weight gain and villous atrophy that are usually seen with more traditional treatments.

Human trials of this new therapeutic approach are yet to be conducted, but the similarities between the immune systems of mice and humans, as well as Prevotella histicola's role in the human digestive system, means this reduction in side effects is likely to be carried across.

Dr Veena Taneja, an immunologist at the Mayo Clinic's Center for Individualized Medicine, said: "These are exciting discoveries that we may be able to use to personalise treatment for patients. Using genomic sequencing technology, we were able to pin down some gut microbes that were normally rare and of low abundance in healthy individuals, but expanded in patients with rheumatoid arthritis."

These discoveries could represent important developments in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder characterised by swelling that mainly damages the bones and joints, but also other parts of the body like the skin, eyes, heart, lung and blood vessels. Currently, the scientific understanding of the causes of the disease is limited, but research of this kind can help to address this problem over time.

Posted by Jeanette Royston

 


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