Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Diagnosis by gut bacteria?

Please don't take the title of this post too literally. Sciences is only just beginning to unravel the first strands of the complicated universe that is our gut microbiota but two recent papers certainly do make for some interesting reading.

The first paper by Iebba and colleagues* provides quite a nice summary of where we stand (research-wise) with regards to different bacterial species seemingly predominating in different childhood conditions. The second paper by Jeffery and colleagues** details the intriguing possibility that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or some phenotypes of IBS based on the presence of functional bowel disturbances, might be classifiable by the predominating types of gut bacteria.

The Iebba paper was of double (triple) interest to me because it mentioned autism, coeliac disease (CD) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in the same sentence. In particular, the prevalence of Bacteroidetes alongside a parallel decrease of Firmicutes was a commonality between these three conditions; the first time I've seen a research group looking (bacterially) at these conditions together. I have to point out that autism is an extremely heterogeneous condition with quite a lot of scope for comorbidity; hence I am careful with any generalisations.

By contrast the Jeffery paper, although based on quite a small participant group, suggested quite a few things including that cluster analysis might be able to 'pick out' those cases of IBS associated with diarrhoea compared with those where constipation or alternating bowel habits were more common. Interestingly, their analysis also reported the opposite trend in terms of an increase of Firmicutes-associated taxa and a depletion of Bacteroidetes-related taxa in some of their participant cases. This alongside other related findings which perhaps indicate that the so-called 'leaky gut' (gut hyperpermeability) might also show some differences in terms of site when sub-categorising IBS on the basis of predominant functional bowel patterns.

Aside from factors such as different ages, different populations, different genders, et al, all of this makes me wonder about things like the immune system differences between conditions like IBD and CD compared with IBS. Indeed a few open questions: do the gut bacteria findings in autism perhaps reflect similar immune features to CD and IBD or is it all merely a coincidence? Is IBS an immune-mediated condition the same way as CD or IBD are or are other forces at work?

Without getting too Arthur C. Clarke, there are lots of potential possibilities to these collected works based on our individual and collected patterns of gut microbiota. Unlike fingerprints or retinal scans, gut bacteria is perhaps slightly more dynamic as a function of diet, environment, etc. and so is probably not going to be biometrically encoded onto your passport any time soon. Having said that, if the subtle differences between our gut bacteria might also be reflective of our condition or disease, this could potentially offer some quite startling insights into the way medicine diagnoses and also manages a wide variety of conditions.

Finally, this is probably my last post on this blog until the New Year. I would like to wish readers Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I raise a glass of water to your good digestive health over the holiday period!

* Iebba V. et al. Gut microbiota and pediatric disease. Digestive Diseases. December 2011.

** Jeffery IB. et al. An irritable bowel syndrome subtype defined by species-specific alterations in faecal microbiota. Gut. December 2011.


  1. Interesting, in the autism/gut crowd many of us parents have those same gi issues, and I think there a a couple of studies that found that as well. Wouldn't it be nice if they could not only diagnos your condition with gut bacteria, but also determine which diet would work as well? Maybe one day...
    Happy Holidays to you too.

  2. Thanks Mrs. Ed. There is still a long way to go with this whole gut bacteria angle but certainly this year, many more people are starting to talk about the important role our gut bacteria play.
    I'd like to think that as the technology gets better and attitudes start to change to the gut-brain axis, more people, expertise (and money) will be drawn into this area, and what is now mainly just research and peer-reviewed papers might start to have some real-world application. Happy Holidays.