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MARCH 9, 2015 by MAE CHAN
Simple Tests On Our Gut Microbes May Soon Be Able To Predict Our Risk of Diabetes and Other Diseases

The composition of our gut microbes may change through the development of many diseases including pre-diabetes and diabetes. Scientists may soon develop simple tests which can predict the risk of diabetes, potentially leading to new ways to aid blood sugar management before an official diagnosis is needed.

Beneficial bacteria is the gut are known to attack pathogens, manufacture vitamins and even act as anti-cancer agents. Recent research has strengthened the scientific understanding that the microbes that live in your gut may affect what goes on in your body.

Trillions of bacteria are hostile and can cause disease, while many others are friendly and have established a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship with us over the millennia. These friendly bacteria have also been referred to as "probiotics" and are being used increasingly by mainstream clinicians for both preventive and therapeutic purposes.

Gut microbiota disturbances are involved in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

The composition of intestinal bacteria changes during the development of pre-diabetes, and may be a predictor of risk for metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

Led by Professor Elena Barengolts from the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Chicago, the research team noted that previous research has shown that the gut microbiota can affect human health in many ways and that the mix of this community of microscopic organisms differs in people with type 2 diabetes compared with healthy individuals. However, the new study shows that alterations in the gut microbiota already occur in the early stage of diabetes development known as impaired glucose tolerance or pre-diabetes.

"Your gut bacteria could predict your risk of diabetes," commented Barengolts.

Although the study found connections between composition of the gut microbiota and glycemic states, Barengolts said further research is needed to evaluate whether certain intestinal bacteria cause type 2 diabetes.

However, based on other research her group has conducted, she speculated that the foods we eat affect our diabetes risk through our gut microbiota – adding that if the makeup of the microbiota indeed responsible for the development of type 2 diabetes, it is possible that changing one's gut bacteria could prevent diabetes.

"If doctors accept our suggestions," Barengolts said, "they have additional reasons to recommend foods, such as prebiotics, which improve the growth and activity of helpful gut bacteria."
Study details

The research, which is due to be presented at the Endocrine Society's 97th annual meeting in San Diego, analysed the microbiota composition over one year in a group of men with varying blood glucose (sugar) and insulin levels.

The 116 men in the study were all African-American veterans participating in the D Vitamin Intervention in VA, or DIVA clinical trial, which the Department of Veterans Affairs funded, said the team.

Study subjects were divided into four groups based on changes in their glycemic, or blood sugar, control, as demonstrated by the oral glucose tolerance test (or the fasting glucose blood test in group 2), between the start and end of the one-year study.

The four glycemic control groups were (1) stable (unchanged) normal, (2) stable impaired, (3) worsened, and (4) improved. At the end of the study, the men gave stool samples for analysis of their gut microbiota.

The researchers found that men whose blood sugar control stayed normal over the year had more gut bacteria that are considered beneficial for metabolic health, whereas those who stayed pre-diabetic had fewer beneficial bacteria and more harmful bacteria.

In addition, the group whose glycemic control improved (group 4) had even more abundant Akkermansia -- a strain of healthy bacteria - than the group that kept normal blood sugar control throughout the year.

Beneficial Microbes Prevent Disease

The genomes of the bacteria and viruses of the human gut alone are thought to encode 3.3 million genes. "The genetic richness and complexity of the bugs we carry is much richer than our own," says Jayne Danska, an immunologist at the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute in Ontario, Canada. "They serve as a buffer and interpreter of our environment. We are chimeric organisms."

Problems ranging from autoimmune disease to clinical depression and simple obesity may in fact be linked to immune dysfunction that begins with a "failure to communicate" in the human gut, scientists say. Health care of the future may include personalized diagnosis of an individual's "microbiome" to determine what prebiotics or probiotics are needed to provide balance.

As reported by Scientific American:

"Each of us harbors a teeming ecosystem of microbes that outnumbers the total number of cells in the human body by a factor of 10 to one and whose collective genome is at least 150 times larger than our own.

In 2012 the National Institutes of Health completed the first phase of the Human Microbiome Project, a multimillion-dollar effort to catalogue and understand the microbes that inhabit our bodies. The microbiome varies dramatically from one individual to the next and can change quickly over time in a single individual...

[A] burgeoning body of research suggests that the makeup of this complex microbial ecosystem is closely linked with our immune function. Some researchers now suspect that, aside from protecting us from infection, one of the immune system's jobs is to cultivate, or 'farm,' the friendly microbes that we rely on to keep us healthy."

Does Diet Matter?

Yes, definitely, at least if you are a mouse (though if you are a mouse and can read you have bigger worries). We can completely transform a mouse microbiome in one day by starving them or switching them to a high-fat diet. But people are not mice -- researchers are great at curing diseases in mice, but with people it's a bit harder.

In humans, even a year on a different diet has relatively subtle effects on who's in your gut (but larger effects on their relative abundances). In the elderly, people with better diets also have much better health outcomes, but we don't know what part of this, if any, is due to microbial activity.

We know that many factors can affect the gut microbiome -- how old you are, what you eat, whether you have kids or pets, whether you smoke or drink and how much, where you live and have lived before -- but we don't know which of these is most important or what specific microbes are involved.

As the human microbiome project expands, there will be tests available first with the medical profession and eventually within the retail sector for the general public to better assess where their gut microbes are taking their health.


Mae Chan holds degrees in both physiology and nutritional sciences. She is also blogger and and technology enthusiast with a passion for disseminating information about health.

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