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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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University of Chicago Study Determines Certain Gut Bacteria Can Help Prevent Food Allergies and Other Gastrointestinal Illnesses

With further research, clinical laboratories may soon be performing macrobiotic testing to measure certain bacterial levels in patients’ gut bacteria

New insights from the University of Chicago (UChicago) into how human microbiota (aka, gut bacteria) play a role in food allergies has the potential to change the way a number of gastrointestinal health conditions are diagnosed and treated. This would give microbiologists and clinical laboratories a greater role in helping physicians diagnose, treat, and monitor patients with these health issues.

Past research has shown that certain gut bacteria can prevent antigens that trigger allergic reactions from entering the bloodstream. For example, Clostridium bacteria in the stomach produce a short-chain fatty acid known as butyrate, a metabolite that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. This helps keep the microbiome in balance.

One way butyrate is created in the gut is through the fermentation of fiber. However, a lack of fiber in the diet can deplete the production of butyrate and cause the microbiome to be out of balance. When this happens, a state known as dysbiosis occurs that disrupts the microbiome and can lead to food allergies. 

Without butyrate, the gut lining can become permeable and allow food to leak out of the gastrointestinal tract and into the body’s circulatory system. This reaction can trigger a potentially fatal anaphylactic response in the form of a food allergy. Thus, eating enough fiber is critical to the production of butyrate and to maintaining a balanced microbiome.

But today’s western diet can be dangerously low in soluble fiber. Therefore, the scientists at the University of Chicago have developed “a special type of polymeric molecule to deliver a crucial metabolite produced by these bacteria directly to the gut, where it helps restore the intestinal lining and allows the beneficial bacteria to flourish. … these polymers, called micelles, can be designed to release a payload of butyrate, a molecule that is known to help prevent food allergies, directly in the small and large intestines,” according to a UChicago news release.

This will be of interest to microbiologists, in particular. It’s another example of researchers connecting a specific species of bacteria in the human microbiome to a specific benefit.

The University of Chicago scientists published their findings in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering titled, “Treatment of Peanut Allergy and Colitis in Mice via the Intestinal Release of Butyrate from Polymeric Micelles.”

Cathryn Nagler, PhD

“It’s very unlikely that butyrate is the only relevant metabolite, but the beauty of this platform is that we can make polymers with other microbial metabolites that could be administered in conjunction with butyrate or other therapies,” said Cathryn Nagler, PhD (above), Bunning Family Professor in the Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at UChicago and a senior author of the study. “So, the potential for the polymer platform is pretty much wide open.” As further research validates these findings, clinical labs are likely to be doing microbiomic testing to monitor these therapies. (Photo copyright: University of Chicago.)

Restoring Butyrate in the Gut

One way to treat this anomaly has been through a microbiota transplant—also called a fecal biota transplant—where the administration of a solution of fecal matter is transplanted from a donor into the intestinal tract of the recipient. This transplant alters the recipient’s gut microbial composition to a healthier state, but it has had mixed results. 

So, the UChicago researchers went in another direction (literally). They created an oral solution of butyrate and administered it to mice in the lab. The purpose of the solution was to thwart an allergic reaction when the mice were exposed to peanuts. 

But there was a problem with their oral solution. It was repulsive.

“Butyrate has a very bad smell, like dog poop and rancid butter, and it also tastes bad, so people wouldn’t want to swallow it,” Shijie Cao, PhD, Postdoctoral Scientist at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at UChicago and one of the researchers who worked on the project, told Medical News Today.

The researchers developed a new configuration of polymers that masked the butyrate. They then delivered these polymer micelles directly into the digestive systems of mice that lacked healthy gut bacteria or a proper gut linings.

The treatment restored the microbiome by increasing the production of peptides that obliterate harmful bacteria. This allowed more of the beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria to emerge, which protected the mice from an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts and even reduced the symptom severity in an ulcerative colitis model. 

“We were delighted to see that our drug both replenished the levels of butyrate present in the gut and helped the population of butyrate-producing bacteria to expand,” said Cathryn Nagler, PhD, Bunning Family Professor in the Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and a senior author of the study, in the press release. “That will likely have implications not only for food allergy and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but also for the whole set of non-communicable chronic diseases that have been rising over the last 30 years, in response to lifestyle changes and overuse of antibiotics in our society.”

Future Benefits of UChicago Treatment

According to data from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about 20 million Americans suffered from food allergies in 2021. This includes approximately 16 million (6.2%) of adults and four million (5.8%) of children. The most common allergens for adults are shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts, while the most common allergens for children are milk, eggs, and peanuts. 

The best way to prevent an allergic reaction to a trigger food is strict avoidance. But this can be difficult to ensure outside of the home. Therefore, scientists are searching for ways to prevent food allergies from happening in the first place. The micelle technology could be adapted to deliver other metabolites and molecules which may make it a potential platform for treating allergies as well as other inflammatory gastrointestinal diseases

“It’s a very flexible chemistry that allows us to target different parts of the gut,” said Jeffrey Hubbell, PhD, Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering and Vice Dean and Executive Officer at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and one of the project’s principal investigators, in the UChicago news release. “And because we’re delivering a metabolite like butyrate, it’s antigen-agnostic. It’s one agent for many different allergic indications, such as peanut or milk allergies. Once we begin working on clinical trials, that will be a huge benefit.”

Nagler and Hubbell have co-founded a company called ClostraBio to further the development of butyrate micelles into a commercially available treatment for peanut and other food allergies. They hope to begin clinical trials within the next 18 months and expand the technology to other applications as well.  

Further research and clinical trials are needed to prove the validity of using polymer micelles in the treatment of diseases. But it is possible that clinical laboratories will be performing microbiomic testing in the future to help alleviate allergic reactions to food and other substances.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Peanut and Food Allergies May Be Reversed with Compound Produced by Healthy Gut Bacteria

Time Release Polymers Deliver Metabolites to Treat Peanut Allergy and Colitis

Food Allergies: Reversing the Old, Preventing the New with Gut Bacteria

Scientists Reverse Food Allergies by Targeting the Microbiome

Polymers Help Protect Mice from Anaphylactic Reaction to Peanuts, UChicago Research Finds

Treatment of Peanut Allergy and Colitis in Mice via the Intestinal Release of Butyrate from Polymeric Micelles

University of Illinois Study Concludes Regular Physical Exercise Improves Human Microbiome; Might Be Useful Component of New Treatment Regimens for Cancer and Other Chronic Diseases

Exercise contributes to improving the human microbiome in ways that fight disease and clinical labs might eventually provide tests that help track beneficial changes in a patient’s microbiome

With growing regularity, new discoveries about the human Microbiome have been reported in scientific journals and the media. Some of these discoveries have led to innovations in clinical laboratory tests over the past few years. Dark Daily reported on these breakthroughs, which include: improved cancer drugs, life extension, personalized medical treatments (AKA, precision medicine), genetic databases, and women’s health.

Now, a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI) has linked exercise to beneficial changes in the makeup of human microbiota. The researchers identified significant differences in the gut bacteria of obese and lean individuals who underwent the same endurance training. The lean individuals developed healthy gut bacteria at a much higher rate than the obese participants. And they retained it, so long as the exercise continued.

Thus, researchers believe weight loss and regular exercise could become critical components of new treatment regimens for many chronic diseases, including cancer.

Regular Exercise Increases Good Gut Bacteria in Humans and Mice

The UI researchers published the results of their study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. To perform their study, they analyzed the impact six weeks of endurance training had on the gut bacteria of 32 adults:

  • Eighteen of the subjects were lean and the remaining 14 were obese;
  • Eleven of the obese and nine of the lean participants were female; and,
  • All 32 were sedentary before the study began.

The subjects participated in six weeks of supervised exercise three days/week. They started at 30-minutes/day and progressed to 60-minutes/day. Fecal samples were collected from the participants before and after the six weeks of training. The subjects were instructed to not change any of their dietary habits during the study.

Upon completion of the initial six-week exercise program, participants returned to a sedentary lifestyle for another six weeks and then researchers took more fecal samples.

Jacob Allen, PhD-Candidate (left), and Jeffrey Woods, PhD

In a University of Illinois study, Jacob Allen, PhD-Candidate (left), and Jeffrey Woods, PhD (right), et al, concluded that regular exercise increased production of beneficial gut bacterial (microbiome) more in lean individuals than in obese participants. This finding could alter how anatomic pathologists and medical laboratories view exercise and weight loss for patients undergoing treatment regimens for chronic diseases. (Photo copyright: University of Illinois/L. Brian Stauffer.)

As a result of the study, the researchers found the gut bacteria of the subjects did change, however, those changes varied among the participants. Fecal concentrations of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), particularly butyrate, increased in the guts of the lean participants but not in the guts of the obese subjects.

SCFAs have been shown to improve metabolism and reduce inflammation in the body, and they are the main source of energy for the cells lining the colon. However, nearly all of the beneficial changes in the participants’ gut bacteria disappeared after six weeks of non-exercise.

“The bottom line is that there are clear differences in how the microbiome of somebody who is obese versus somebody who is lean responds to exercise,” Jeffrey Woods, PhD, Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, College of Applied Health Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-leader of the study, told UI’s News Bureau. “These are the first studies to show that exercise can have an effect on your gut independent of diet or other factors.”

Reduced Inflammation Promotes Healing

The researchers had previously performed a related study using lab mice and found similar results. For that experiment, mice were separated into two groups where some were permitted to run around and be active while the others were sedentary. The gut material from all of the mice was then transplanted into gnotobiotic (germ-free) mice where their microbiomes were exposed to a substance that was known to cause irritation and inflammation in the colon. The animals with the gut bugs from the active mice experienced less inflammation and were better than the sedentary mice at resisting and healing tissue damage.

“We found that the animals that received the exercised microbiota had an attenuated response to a colitis-inducing chemical,” Jacob Allen, PhD Candidate, co-leader of the study and former doctoral student at UI, now a postdoctoral researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told the UI News Bureau. “There was a reduction in inflammation and an increase in the regenerative molecules that promote a faster recovery.”

Exercise Added to Growing List of Benefits from Health Gut Bacteria

Similar research in the past has found that healthy gut bacteria may have many positive effects on the body, including:

  • Improved immune health;
  • Improved mood and mental health;
  • Boosting energy levels;
  • Improved cholesterol levels;
  • Regulated hormone levels;
  • Reduction of yeast infections;
  • Healthy weight support;
  • Improved oral health; and,
  • Increased life expectancy.

Other ways to improve gut bacteria include: dietary changes, taking probiotics, lowering stress levels, and getting enough sleep. Now regular exercise can be added to this growing list.

Once further research confirms the findings of this study and useful therapies are developed from this knowledge, clinical laboratories should be able to provide microbiome testing that would help physicians and patients track the benefits of exercise on enhancing gut bacteria.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Exercise Alters Our Microbiome. Is That One Reason It’s So Good for Us?

Exercise Training-induced Modification of the Gut Microbiota Persists After Microbiota Colonization and Attenuates the Response to Chemically-induced Colitis in Gnotobiotic Mice

Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans

Exercise Changes Gut Microbial Composition Independent of Diet, Team Reports

Exercise Can Beneficially Alter the Composition of Your Gut Microbiome

Researchers Discover Link between Gut Bacteria and the Effectiveness of Certain Cancer Drugs; Knowledge May Lead to New Types of Clinical Laboratory Tests

Researchers in Two Separate Studies Discover Gut Microbiome Can Affect Efficacy of Certain Cancer Drugs; Will Findings Lead to a New Clinical Laboratory Test?

Attention Microbiologists and Medical Laboratory Scientists: New Research Suggests an Organism’s Microbiome Might Be a Factor in Longer, More Active Lives

Get the Poop on Organisms Living in Your Gut with a New Consumer Laboratory Test Offered by American Gut and uBiome

Mayo Clinic and Whole Biome Announce Collaboration to Research the Role of the Human Microbiome in Women’s Diseases Using Unique Medical Laboratory Tests