Could bacteria in the gut trigger lupus?

Scientists at OMRF have a gut feeling that the human biome holds clues to the origins of autoimmune diseases.

Researcher Patrick Gaffney, M.D., recently began a pilot study examining the “gut microbiome”—the community of microorganisms that live in the stomach and intestines—in patients with lupus.

“We’re looking for significant differences between the microorganisms in lupus patients versus those with a healthy immune system,” he said. “We think the microbiome could play a role in initiating or dampening autoimmunity.”

If there are clear variations between the two, researchers will begin teasing out the big question: Why?

Autoimmune diseases, including lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren’s syndrome, are conditions in which the immune system becomes overactive and, instead of attacking foreign invaders, turns against the body. The diseases have a genetic component—a combination of mutations in the DNA that “prime the pump” for disease—but require an environmental trigger.

“There’s a possibility the trigger that sets off lupus might be hiding in the gut,” Gaffney said. “We’re trying to figure out if and how the microbiome influences the genome or vice versa.”

The pilot study is similar to drilling test holes when panning for gold, he said. If they find compelling evidence, the study could be expanded to a larger patient population and sampling of skin, urine and saliva.

This could lead to discovering an intervention treatment to stop the disease before it starts or lessen its impact. If the evidence shows there is a difference, Gaffney said he would be interested in exploring whether a probiotic diet or even a fecal transplant, which have been used to change the microbiome in patients suffering from the bacterial infection clostridium difficile, might be useful for lupus patients.

Funding for the pilot project was provided by a grant from the Lupus Foundation of Minnesota.