Scientists, who have been grappling with this question for quite some time, are now targeting an intriguing new suspect: the trillions of microbes living and working inside the gut.
Animal models have long suggested that intestinal bacteria can influence the development of some autoimmune diseases. This may also be the case with rheumatoid arthritis, according to emerging research, a finding that could lead to novel treatments and diagnostic methods.
Though long ignored by researchers, “these bacteria clearly exert a great deal of influence on many physiological processes in the body, including metabolism, digestion and the nutrients we take in,” said Dan Littman, professor of pathology and microbiology at the New York University School of Medicine and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “The part that’s less appreciated is the profound influence the microbiota can have on the immune system.”
Littman’s team of scientists was the first to show in humans that disturbances in the digestive tract may play a role in autoimmune attacks on the joints, according to 2013 research published in the open-access journal eLife.
Using a sophisticated DNA analysis technique, the scientists compared the gut bacteria from fecal samples of patients with rheumatoid arthritis with those of healthy people. They found a bacteria known as Prevotella copri was more abundant in patients with newly diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis than in healthy people or patients with chronic, treated rheumatoid arthritis.
Moreover, the overgrowth of P. copri was associated with fewer beneficial gut bacteria.
“There’s a lot of speculation about autoimmune diseases being associated with changes or disturbances in the microbiota,” Littman said. He called his team’s study results “the clearest association with a particular microbe to date.”
Still, while the connections have been made in animal models, more research needs to be completed in humans. Scientists first need to figure out whether the microbes are a cause or a consequence of the disease, says Yasmine Belkaid, senior investigator and chief of the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases’ Mucosal Immunology Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
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