Good health begins in the gut

UAlberta scientists and clinicians explore how gut bacteria may be key to a healthy life.

Ross Neitz - 24 May 2017

For the germaphobes among us, the mere thought of bacteria can be gut-wrenching. But as it turns out, the bacteria in our guts is a key factor to good health.

Scientists at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry are among Canada's leading experts on the microbiome-the bacteria residing in our digestive tract. Together they are broadening the understanding of how these micro-organisms in our gut influence our health throughout life, impacting our likelihood of developing allergies, obesity and other serious conditions.

A groundbreaking U of A study shows that babies from families with pets had higher levels of two types of microbes associated with lower risks of allergic disease and obesity.

"There's definitely a critical window of time when gut immunity and microbes co-develop, and when disruptions to the process result in changes to gut immunity," said Anita Kozyrskyj, a U of A pediatric epidemiologist and one of the world's leading researchers on gut microbes.

The study expands on two decades of research that show children who grow up with dogs have lower rates of asthma. According to Kozyrskyj, the findings may one day lead to the pharmaceutical industry creating a "dog in a pill" as a preventative tool for allergies and obesity.

While Kozyrskyj focuses on the early influences affecting gut bacteria in life, other U of A experts like gastroenterologist Dina Kao are making their own mark on the quickly expanding field of microbiome research. Kao's work focuses on correcting unhealthy gut bacteria.

Could poop be the new scoop?

Kao is one of just a few clinicians across Canada performing fecal transplants to remedy the effects of a compromised microbiome. She has discovered that altered gut bacteria-often caused by the unnecessary use of antibiotics-can lead to serious conditions such as recurrent Clostridium difficile infection. Her research has proven that a fecal transplant from a healthy donor can replenish the microbiome of C. difficile patients with healthy bacteria, and is far more effective than conventional treatments.

"Currently no effective conventional therapy exists for recurrent Clostridium difficile infection," says Kao. "But fecal transplant can provide a permanent cure for over 90 per cent of patients. You can see the changes in them right before your eyes. It is amazing."

While the study of gut bacteria is still in its infancy, giant strides are being made at the U of A and beyond. And Kao firmly believes the best is yet to come.

"It's an open book. And it has tremendous potential."

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