Gut bacteria study could lead to new Crohn's treatments, researchers say

A new study involving researchers from the University of Ottawa and the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario suggests targeting gut bacteria could be the next front in the fight against Crohn's disease.

Ottawa study hints at 'brand new paradigm' for treating inflammatory bowel disease

Researchers with the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa were part of a recent study into how the dynamics of human gut bacteria could influence the symptoms associated with Crohn's disease. (CBC)

Ottawa researchers are hopeful the results of a new study into the dynamics of human gut bacteria could potentially lead to more successful treatments for patients with Crohn's disease.

The study, which appeared Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that Crohn's disease — a painful inflammatory disease of the bowel — could be linked to the bacterial ecosystem found in the gut.

"That's what we've found, that it's this massive interaction happening," said David Mack, director of the inflammatory bowel disease centre at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and one of the study's co-authors, on CBC Radio's All In A Day

"To think it's [caused by] a single bacteria, that's been sort of tossed around for decades and has never really panned out. But I think looking at the community of bacteria, and what they do, interacting with the patients, is the key thing."

Pro-inflammatory bacteria

Approximately 130,000 people in Canada suffer from Crohn's, which can cause nausea, diarrhea, rectal bleeding and abdominal pain. The disease currently has no cure.

Mack's research team — which also included researchers from the University of Ottawa's faculty of medicine and the University of Florida — found that Crohn's patients had significantly fewer protective microorganisms that produce butyrate, an anti-inflammatory fatty acid.

Those same patients also had higher numbers of gut bacteria known to produce pro-inflammatory agents like hydrogen sulfide, according to the study. Crohn's sufferers also had a decreased ability to detoxify that hydrogen sulfide in their intestinal lining.

The team was also able to show that the bacteria Atopobium parvulum, a potent producer of hydrogen sulfide, induces severe colitis — and that in order to do so, the bacteria also requires the presence of other microbes already living in the patient's gut.

'Brand new paradigm'

Mack said the study's findings could shift the way doctors treat Crohn's patients — away from steroids and immunosuppressants, which work reasonably well but can also cause a number of side effects.

"We don't know as much about long-term effects, especially if we give them to kids. So we're always looking for new ways [to treat the disease]," said Mack.

Some of those future Crohn's treatments could involve targeting the gut's bacterial ecosystem, said Mack, while also placing more emphasis on managing patients' diets.

"It's a brand new paradigm of thinking. It's going to be hard, because there's 10 times more bacteria in our bodies than there are cells in the body," said Mack.

"So what we do to the bacteria, we sure don't want to translate into problems with the patients."