Future treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease of the brain and spinal cord may target the gut to reach the brain. University of Alberta MS researchers are looking to the gut to find new ways to prevent and treat the inflammation and neurodegeneration associated with the disease.
“If you can change the gut microbiome by introducing the right bacteria, I believe you can reduce the symptoms of MS and possibly prevent the progression for those who are genetically predisposed,” said Babita Agrawal, a professor in the Department of Surgery. “This would give those with MS much better quality of life.”
The microbiome is made up of the microbes that live inside and on the human body.
Agrawal hopes to treat the microbiome of MS patients with therapeutic bacteria in pill form. She stumbled across the particular bacteria while researching possible biological treatments for cancer. Agrawal found that when the bacteria was administered orally in lab mice, it had an effect on the immune system that would be beneficial for patients with MS.
When it comes to the microbiome, are you what you eat?
Exploring gut-to-brain pathways opens the door to opportunities for new pharmaceutical and nutritional approaches for the treatment of the currently incurable disease.
Jens Walter, a professor and CAIP Chair in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Science, is among the U of A scientists taking a closer look at the role of nutrition and the microbiome in MS.
According to Walter, researchers have known for some time that MS has genetic and environmental components. He believes studying the microbiome can help make sense of some of the puzzling genetic findings.
Walter is also working to identify the bacterial strains that are protective against MS. Our microbiomes have changed extensively over the course of human history, and Walter says that diet plays a big role.
“We are basically starving our microbes by not eating enough fiber and consuming so many processed foods,” said Walter.
According to Walter, other factors such as cesarean deliveries, formula feeding and antibiotic use early in life could also disrupt the microbiome at a critical time in development, which may increase the risk of conditions like MS.
The new research adds to a quickly growing base of expertise at the University of Alberta.
Bradley Kerr, an associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine and Co-Director of the University of Alberta’s MS Centre, believes the efforts are giving U of A scientists a step up in the search for new treatments and an eventual cure.
“We have a lot of expertise in the University of Alberta MS Centre in immunology, pharmacology and clinical neurology, so these studies on the microbiome will be important additions to our research profile,” said Kerr. “Collaboration between different areas of the basic sciences, clinicians and other health professionals like dieticians is crucial.”
MS symposium brings global experts to Edmonton
World-leading MS experts will be meeting at the University of Alberta to share the latest findings on the connection between the gut and brain in MS at the MS Centre Research Symposium on May 4.
Presenters include Hartmut Wekerle from the Max Planck Institute in Munich—a pioneer in microbiome MS research—and Kassandra Munger, an epidemiologist from the Harvard School of Public Health who has led nutritional epidemiology MS studies.
The symposium will provide opportunities for the public, students and scientists to learn about cutting-edge research, while also acting as a catalyst for new international collaborations. According to Christopher Power, a MS neurologist and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Medicine and Co-Director of the MS Centre, it will be an opportunity for patients to have access to the best information from MS researchers around the world.
“Bridging the gap between academia and the community is important in helping people to make informed decisions about their health care,” he said.