New Study Finds Certain Gut Bacteria Changes May Promote Development of Type 1 Diabetes

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Study suggests these changes may play a role in triggering the disease and speeding its development

In the largest longitudinal study to date, researchers at Harvard, MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital have identified a link between changes in gut bacteria and onset of type 1 diabetes (T1D). Previous studies have identified this possible link but this new one is the first to show “how specific changes in gut bacteria composition are affecting progression to T1D,” said JDRF Director of Discovery Research Jessica Dunne.

The JDRF-funded observational study followed 33 infants who were at high-risk for T1D from birth until age 3 and found that those who developed symptomatic T1D experienced a significant drop (25 percent) in the diversity of their gut bacteria, as well as a decrease in specific bacteria known to promote gut health and an increase in harmful bacteria known to promote inflammation. These changes typically occurred about a year prior to onset of T1D, according to the findings of a new paper published by Cell, Host & Microbe.

Xavier study photo

In addition to teasing out the kinds of gut bacteria changes that may trigger the start of T1D, researchers were also able to identify some patterns of healthy gut bacteria activity that may help protect individuals from developing the disease. Investigators are hopeful that additional research into these distinct patterns will ultimately lead to methods of detecting T1D before the body’s ability to produce insulin is compromised.

This new knowledge could also pave the way for development of new T1D therapies that are able to slow progression of the disease through manipulation of gut bacteria composition in individuals who are in the early stages of T1D.

A significant amount of research is still needed to determine whether this recent discovery has therapeutic applications, however. The next logical step, said the study’s primary investigator Ramnik Xavier, M.D., Ph.D., will be determining what environmental factors may be involved in effecting changes in gut bacteria composition. Researchers will likely investigate whether the hygiene hypothesis—which suggests that a lack of childhood exposure to certain germs may actually hinder immune system development and increase the likelihood of autoimmune diseases such as T1D—could provide an answer for these changes.

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By Shawn Rhea