Digestive Health

Updated 10 August 2014

Bacteria vital for keeping intestinal lining intact

The role of intestinal microorganisms in promoting or preventing disease is a major emerging field of study.

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Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have found that bacteria that aid in digestion help keep the intestinal lining intact.

The findings, reported online in the journal Immunity, could yield new therapies for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and a wide range of other disorders.

Bacterial by-product

The research involved the intestinal microbiome, which contains some 100 trillion bacteria. The role of these microorganisms in promoting or preventing disease is a major emerging field of study.

Einstein scientists found that absorption of a specific bacterial by-product is crucial for maintaining the integrity of the intestinal epithelium – the single-cell layer responsible for keeping intestinal bacteria and their toxins inside the gut and away from the rest of the body. Breaching of the intact intestinal epithelium is associated with a number of diseases.

Read: Deadly bacteria largely transmitted outside hospitals

"Intestinal bacteria secrete a wide variety of chemicals known as metabolites," said Sridhart Mani, M.D., co-corresponding author of the paper. "These bacteria and their metabolites were known to influence the intestinal epithelium's integrity, but precisely how they did so wasn't known." Dr. Mani is professor of medicine and of genetics and the Miriam Mandel Faculty Scholar in Cancer Research at Einstein and attending physician, oncology at the Montefiore Einstein Centre for Cancer Care and Montefiore Medical Centre.

Preventing inflammation


Dr. Mani and his colleagues suspected that bacterial metabolites exert their influence by binding to and activating a protein in the nuclei of intestinal epithelial cells called the pregnane X receptor (PXR). PXR was known to be activated by chemicals within the body (such as bile acids) as well as by drugs including steroids and antibiotics.

In a series of mouse studies, the researchers found that a metabolite called indole 3-propionic acid (IPA) – produced exclusively by so-called commensal bacteria, which aid in digestion – both strengthens the intestinal epithelium's barrier function and prevents its inflammation by activating PXR. More specifically, PXR activation suppresses production of an inflammatory protein called tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) while increasing levels of a protein that strengthens the junctions between adjacent intestinal epithelial cells.

Read: Poo in a pill to treat gut infection

"By adding probiotics in the form of IPA-producing bacteria to the intestine or by administering IPA directly, we may be able to prevent or treat IBD and other inflammatory disorders that occur when the intestinal epithelium has been compromised," said Dr. Mani. "Such a strategy could also be tried for other health problems that may occur when the intestinal epithelium breaks down, including certain forms of liver disease, diabetes, asthma, allergies, obesity and heart disease."

Dr. Mani's team is now developing novel probiotics aimed at restoring the intestinal epithelium's barrier function by encouraging IPA's interaction with PXR.

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Image: Human body with intestine from Shutterstock

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Digestive Health Expert

Dr. Estelle Wilken is a Senior Specialist in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology at Tygerberg Hospital. She obtained her MBChB in 1976, her MMed (Int) in 1991 and her gastroenterology registration in 1995.

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