We already know that the bacteria that live on and within us are far more than just inert passengers. They interact with our cells and are associated with a whole host of conditions and diseases. Now, researchers think that our microbiome might also play a role in the autoimmune disease lupus.
Currently, there is no cure for systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus for short. It occurs when the body’s immune system goes out of whack and starts attacking healthy tissue, causing joint problems, tiredness, skin rashes, and in severe cases inflamed kidneys, lungs, and even the brain. It is still not fully understood what causes it, but a new study published in Science Translational Medicine finds that the bacteria inside us might at least contribute to it.
We already know that when lupus flares up, the immune system turns on the body and starts attacking Ro60, a protein that is also known to be produced by some bacteria living in soil. The researchers therefore decided to look to see if the bacteria in people also produced this protein, and it turns out they do. What is more, for those with lupus, Ro60 seemingly triggered an immune response.
They then took bacteria that produce a similar protein to Ro60 and put it in mice bred without a microbiome. The result was that the mice developed signs of kidney failure, a similar response to what happens to people with lupus.
“We don’t really know what causes lupus, but it is thought to be a combination of genetics, environment and hormones,” Martin Kriegel, from Yale School of Medicine, told New Scientist.
From these experiments, they suspect that those who have lupus have an underlying genetic susceptibility to Ro60, and so when the bacteria produces it, their immune system goes into overdrive.
While we can’t – for the time being at least – change the genetics, we can alter the community of bacteria living within someone. This is looking like it could become the best way to treat patients with lupus, although as Kriegel points out, we’re still not there yet.
Current antibiotics to treat the gut microbiome are simply too general to be of much use here. What the researchers are now hoping to explore is a far more targeted drug that precisely hits only the bacteria making the protein and nothing else.