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How the gut microbiome protects us from disease

The human gut contains about 100 trillion bacteria, including some microbes that are helpful and others that are harmful to our health. In a new study, scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation have discovered new clues that completely change our understanding about the gut microbiome and its role in protecting the human body from disease.

The groundbreaking research helps explain why antibiotics can cause a range of problems in the digestive system. The findings may ultimately lead to improved treatments for inflammatory bowel disease and for people who have had some of their bowels removed due to conditions like colon cancer. 

The study revealed that the microbiome is responsible for the creation of a sticky layer of sugar-enriched mucus that envelops fecal matter and travels with it. This mucus serves as a barrier between bacteria in feces and the thousands of immune cells in the colon. Without the mucus, the whole system would get thrown off balance.

“The colon is not just a digestive organ, but an immune organ,” said study lead author Dr. Lijun Xia. “Our microbiome begins to develop at the moment of birth and evolves throughout our lives. It’s essential for the growth and maturation of the acquired immune system in our body. When it’s not well developed or cared for, it doesn’t operate as it should, which can lead to diseases.”

The presence of this mucus determines the overall health of the gut microbiome. The researchers demonstrated that even though the mucus production can be interrupted, it can also be restored.

Experients showed that the fecal matter of mice treated with a broad-spectrum antibiotic had no trace of the mucus sheath. Some of the mice that were lacking the protective mucus barrier received a fecal matter transplant, which triggered mucus production.

According to Dr. XIA, this method may one day be used to treat patients whose microbiome is out of balance.

“Whether because of antibiotics interrupting mucus production or a total colon removal due to ulcerative colitis, painful inflammation can result,” said Dr. Xia. “Now that we better understand the role and origin of this mucus, we will study how we can supplement it or restore its production.”

OMRF President Dr. Stephen Prescott noted that the gut microbiome has taken on increasing importance in medical research as scientists have recognized the roles its microorganisms play in our overall health.

“Researchers have found these tiny organisms living in our digestive tracts may be key players in obesity, diabetes and a variety of autoimmune and digestive diseases. Dr. Xia’s work proves a strong connection between the protective coating driven by the microbiome and the development of a disease like colitis,” said Dr. Prescott.

The research may lead to alternatives to colonoscopies for monitoring conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. “Rather than repeated invasive procedures to track the progression of IBD, we may be able to measure the presence of the mucus in a fecal sample and assess a patient’s gut health,” explained Dr. Xia.

“Our researchers had to understand the origin and function of this mucus and how it relates to the microbiome to learn how it connects with disease, ” said Dr. Prescott. “We now understand that the long-term health implications when this pair gets out of balance can be devastating, and Dr. Xia’s work can guide us to answers.”

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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