—A Special Report from Victor Marchione, MD
What if someone told you that bacteria living in your gut may be responsible for triggering rheumatoid arthritis? You would probably say they were crazy! But that is just what some scientists at Harvard Medical School think they have discovered.
According to the scientists, certain bacteria appear to play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases such as arthritis. Of course, your gut (as well as that of every other mammal) is populated with thousands of different types of bacteria. A number of these are very beneficial and are, in fact, essential for developing a normal immune system. But now scientists believe that some of these bacteria also appear to play a significant part in the development of autoimmune diseases.
The Harvard researchers raised mice genetically prone to developing arthritis in a germ-free environment. These mice had fewer arthritis-causing antibodies than mice raised in a normal environment. The mice were then put in a non-germ-free environment and had a common gut bacteria placed in their stomachs. According to the research team, the animals quickly started making antibodies and developed arthritis within four days!
The researchers were quick to explain that the mice did not catch arthritis through a bacterial infection, but rather the bacteria triggered an arthritic program to play out once they were genetically susceptible to the disease. In other words, the bacteria caused the mice to make more of a type of white blood cell. The immune system then reacted to these cells as threatening antibodies that in turn triggered the arthritis.
This whole idea of stomach bacteria causing arthritis is not so farfetched. Certain bacteria have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome, stomach ulcers and other conditions. The research team hopes that, in the future, changing the bacteria in the gut could prevent or treat some of these diseases. They also speculated that the overuse of antibiotics may be changing the bacterial environment in the stomach and causing drastic increases in diseases.
The findings of this latest study could lead to a whole new way of looking at autoimmune diseases and might even result in new ways to treat or prevent them. It might eventually be possible to protect a person from a condition like arthritis by treating them with probiotics or antibiotics.