• Gut bacteria could be used in MS diagnosis. (Flickr)
Scientists may have discovered a new diagnostic breakthrough for the chronic condition that affects the central nervous system.
By
Kemal Atlay

30 Jun 2016 - 8:59 AM  UPDATED 30 Jun 2016 - 2:40 PM

Scientists have discovered that a difference in gut bacteria in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), compared to the general population could be used as to diagnose and track the condition, according to a new study.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School in the US analysed the microbiota from the gut of MS patients and found they had higher levels of methane-producing bacteria called Methanobrevibacter, which could be used to develop a new diagnostic tool and as a biomarker to track disease progression. The study was published yesterday in Nature Communications.

“If further studies demonstrate that these candidate microorganisms play an active role in either contributing to or ameliorating MS, then there is the potential to develop new diagnostics and therapies to combat the disease,” lead author Dr Howard Weiner and his colleagues wrote.

MS, an autoimmune disorder where nerves in the central nervous system are slowly damaged and disrupts the body’s ability to communicate with itself, affects around 23,000 Australians, and over two million people worldwide.

It is possible that treatment strategies of MS in the future may include therapeutic interventions designed to affect the microbiome such as probiotics.

The researchers sequenced ribosomal RNA from faecal samples from 60 individuals with MS and 40 healthy controls to build a profile of bacteria populations in the digestive tract.

They found that Methanobrevibacter and Akkermansia, another group of bacteria, were more abundant in the guts of people with MS, whereas people without the condition were found to have more Butyricimonas colonies in their digestive systems.

“It is possible that treatment strategies of MS in the future may include therapeutic interventions designed to affect the microbiome such as probiotics, faecal transplantation and delivery of constituents of organisms isolated from the microbiome, although more work is required,” the authors wrote.

“In addition, characterisation of the gut microbiome in MS may provide biomarkers for assessing disease activity and could theoretically be an avenue to prevent MS in young at-risk populations.”

It was also found that these variations in gut microbiota correlated with changes in the expression of genes associated with dendritic cell maturation and various signalling pathways in blood immune cells, and that MS patients had increased methane levels in their breath compared to the control individuals.

There has been a growing interest in the role that gut bacteria may play in other autoimmune disorders.

Dr Lisa Melton, head of research at MS Research Australia, says the study makes an important contribution to understanding the links between MS and gut bacteria.

“There has been a growing interest in the role that gut bacteria may play in other autoimmune disorders and there is growing evidence that they do in fact play a role in the development of those diseases,” Dr Melton tells SBS.

“This is an emerging area of research in MS and again we are beginning to see evidence that there are differences in bacteria in people with MS compared with people who do not have the disease, however, it too early to say whether the differences in gut bacteria play a role in the development of MS, or whether having MS itself influences the gut bacteria.”

According to Dr Melton, current techniques for both diagnosing MS and tracking its progression “are not very sensitive”. She says better, more accurate tests are needed.

“The idea of using these differences as a diagnostic tool and for tracking disease progression and response to treatment is certainly very interesting,” she says.

“Our current techniques for tracking the progressive forms of disease in particular, in ‘real time’, are not very sensitive and we do very much need better biomarkers (simple tests in body fluids, imaging etc,) that can help us rapidly detect whether new treatments are working for example.”

The next step in the research will be to conduct larger studies where faecal samples can be collected at various stages of the condition to built a biomarker timeline, as well as investigating the relationship between gut microbiota and the changes in immune gene expression.

Image courtesy of Flickr/NIAID.

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