For a long time, we’ve known that the bacteria in our intestines play a vital role in digestion and fighting infections.
However, there has been suspicion that they might also have a hand in triggering rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the joints.
Recent research by Mayo Clinic has uncovered a crucial link between specific gut bacteria and the onset of an immune response against the body’s tissues, even before the visible symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis emerge.
These findings, published in Science Advances, shed light on the intricate relationship between gut bacteria and this autoimmune disorder.
The Gut Microbiome’s Influence
As we age, the composition of our gut bacteria and the substances they produce undergo changes that impact our immune system.
Senior author Dr. Veena Taneja, an immunologist at Mayo Clinic, highlights the connection between imbalances in gut bacteria, aging, and the development of rheumatoid arthritis.
However, proving this connection in humans has been challenging because autoimmune responses precede the clinical symptoms of the disease by up to a decade.
Unlocking the Role of Gut Bacteria
Using a preclinical model (lab-based experiments rather than human trials), the researchers pinpointed a specific gut bacterium called Eggerthella lenta.
This microbe was found to trigger an autoimmune response even before the visible symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis appeared.
In this response, the immune system generates autoantibodies that mistakenly attack the body’s own tissues and cells instead of foreign invaders like bacteria or viruses.
Moreover, Eggerthella lenta was observed to reduce the levels of amino acids such as arginine, citrulline, and tryptophan metabolites to levels similar to those seen in much older individuals.
This is significant because older people often experience a gradual deterioration of their immune system due to aging.
The researchers also noted a connection between Eggerthella lenta and higher levels of these autoantibodies in female patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
This underscores the importance of considering gender-specific factors in the development of the disease.
Implications for Patient Care
Rheumatoid arthritis has a genetic component, and individuals at risk may not always be aware of their susceptibility to severe forms of the disease.
The research suggests that clinicians could use measurements of metabolic byproducts induced by these gut bacteria as a marker for the disease’s severity.
In cases where there’s a family history of rheumatoid arthritis or in individuals carrying genes associated with the condition, sequencing bacteria, autoantibodies, and metabolites, especially in healthy females, may help predict the likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
The next steps for the researchers involve investigating how clinicians can use Eggerthella lenta in their diagnostic processes, particularly in women.
They plan to study whether targeting this bacterium with antibiotics or specific genes and metabolites can impact preclinical autoimmunity in rheumatoid arthritis.
Additionally, they’re exploring the link between Eggerthella lenta and its effects on the aging process, further unraveling the complex relationship between gut microbiota and overall health.
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The research findings can be found in Science Advances.
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