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News roundup: January 2020

News roundup: January 2020

Happy New Year! A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

Five things you can do to make your microbiome healthier
Fruits and veggies, exercise, and probiotics—yes—but also add resistant starch (like beans and potatoes, especially if refrigerated after cooking) and experiment with different fibers (including whole grains, legumes, and cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and bok choy) to maximize your microbiome. (The Conversation)

The difference between celiac, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and gluten allergy
UChicago pediatric gastroenterologist Ritu Verma, MD, medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, explains the characteristics and treatment of each. (The Forefront)

Human health is in the hands of bacteria
Martin Blaser of Rutgers University writes about the dangers of antibiotics overuse and makes the case for a microbiota vault, to preserve ancestral microbes for future generations. (Time)

Installing air filters in classrooms can have large educational benefits
In the face of growing proof of impact of air pollution on cognition, researchers from New York University found that installing $1,000 air filters in a Los Angeles school affected by a massive gas leak raised a class’s test scores as much as cutting class size by a third. (Vox)

Exposure to diesel exhaust particles linked to susceptibility for pneumococcal disease
Streptococcus pneumonia, a common cause of pneumonia and meningitis, usually live harmlessly in the nose and throat of healthy people, but research shows diesel particulates reduce the ability for the immune system to keep these bacteria in check. (Science Daily)


Understanding the role of the microbiome in Alzheimer’s disease

Understanding the role of the microbiome in Alzheimer’s disease

by Helen Robertson

What is your biggest concern about growing old? A decline in physical fitness? A loss of independence? Or perhaps it’s the fear that your mental fitness might start to lose its edge?

For the 50 million people worldwide living with dementia, that last scenario is a reality. A dementia diagnosis comes with big personal, social, and financial consequences: the cost of care for someone living with dementia is reportedly higher than that of both heart disease and cancer combined.

The most common cause of dementia in the US is Alzheimer’s disease. Although its symptoms are well known—cognitive decline, neuroinflammation, and the tell-tale formation of amyloid plaques, the hard aggregation of proteins between nerve cells in the brain—the precise cause remains unknown, and there is no current cure.

As the world population continues to age, dementia is increasing. The need to uncouple its complex biological processes is urgent.

Sangram Sisodia, PhD, has spent the past three decades investigating just that. But in recent years his Alzheimer’s research has taken an exciting and unexpected focus: the gut.

Thanks to recent findings, many of them by research teams at UChicago, we have learned that the bacteria living in our guts can affect many aspects of health. Normally, our gut microbiome contributes to everyday wellbeing and immunity. But just like any other community, the composition of our microbiome can fluctuate on a near-daily basis. And when a shift in balance occurs, things can go awry.

Our intestinal microbes have a particular influence on immunity and neurological function, both important factors in Alzheimer’s. Those with the disease have also been found to experience a change in the character of their gut microbiome.

That’s where Sisodia stepped in.

Over the past few years, his team has been using mouse models of Alzheimer’s to understand how the composition of our gut microbiome might influence neurological inflammation caused by certain immune cells. They thought this inflammation could contribute to both the protein deposition and neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s.

Sisodia’s research has already generated some interesting findings. His studies, published in Scientific Reports and the Journal of Experimental Medicine, showed that the long-term treatment of mice with broad-spectrum antibiotics reduced neuroinflammation and slowed the growth of amyloid plaques.

After treatment, the mice also showed significant changes in the composition of their gut microbial communities.  Some types of bacteria completely disappeared; others multiplied—suggesting bacterial diversity in the gut plays a role in the immune response during disease progression.

But only for male mice. In females, antibiotics actually increased the inflammatory response, with no change in brain plaques. With Alzheimer’s more prevalent in women than men, this gender difference in immune response clearly warrants more study.

Myles Minter, postdoctoral scholar in Sisodia’s lab who is now a research analyst at William Blair, wondered what might happen if one could prevent Alzheimer’s by treating it early—really early. He gave two-week-old mice pups antibiotics for just one week—which left lifelong effects on both their gut microbiome and amyloid plaque formation.

But this is no simple solution. UChicago neonatologist Erika Claud has shown how changes to the microbiome of premature babies can have a negative impact on neurological development, and Eugene Chang found mouse pups whose mothers were treated with antibiotics were more likely to develop inflammatory bowel disease.

Constantly treating individuals with antibiotics is not a realistic scenario, even for those with genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s, but Sisodia is keen to investigate further. He has recently been awarded a grant of over $2,000,000 to continue his research into Alzheimer’s disease and immunity. The money comes from the Good Ventures project, involving Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Southern California, Northwestern University and Washington University, with total funding over $10,000,000. The hope is this collaboration can uncover mechanisms at play between our microbiome, our immune system, and Alzheimer’s disease.

This is just another example of how the microbiome offers keys for exploring new preventative and treatment approaches for healthy longevity. As Bette Davis once suggested, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” but maybe someday losing our mental fitness may not top our list of concerns about aging.

Helen Robertson is a postdoctoral scholar in Molecular Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, with a keen interest in science communication and science in society.


News roundup: December 2019

News roundup: December 2019

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

Microbes living in the tons of plastics in the oceans
Jessica Mark Welch and colleagues at UChicago’s Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, MA, aim their new microscopy technique at microplastic samples from the ocean to characterize the extensive biofilms on ocean plastic. (Agro Ecology Innovations)

Staph vaccines likely to work better if administered earlier
Research by former UChicago faculty member Julian Bubeck-Wardenburg, now at Washington University in St. Louis, suggests that vaccinating infants before their first encounter staph, either just after birth or via their mothers during pregnancy, would likely generate a stronger immune response. (Futurity)

Microbial inequity
To the host of ways people experience inequity, add the microbiome: A University of Maine scientist argues that access to fibrous foods, parks, good air quality, other infrastructure affect the development of a healthy microbiome. (The Conversation)

UChicago faculty lauded yet again
Thomas Gajewski, MD, PhD, Abbvie Foundation Professor of Cancer Immunotherapy, is honored with the 2019 Award for Immuno-Oncology from the European Society for Medical Oncology (Healio)

Gut neurons are anti-salmonella warriors
Research from Harvard Medical School have found that nerves in the gut not only regulate the cellular gates that admit microorganisms, but actively boost the number of protective microbes there. (ScienceBlog)


News roundup: November 2019

News roundup: November 2019

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

The community in your mouth
Marine Biological Laboratory and DFI researcher Jessica Mark Welch, PhD, shares her research into oral microbiome, and what we can learn about healthy and diseased states from microbes’ relationships and interactions. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Common drugs linked with microbiome alterations
Patients who used drugs from 18 common drug classifications—including proton pump inhibitors, metformin, antibiotics, laxatives, and others—showed extensive changes in their gut microbiomes. (MedPage Today)

DFI researcher Tatyana Golovkina, PhD, named AAAS fellow
UChicago professors Melina Hale, PhD, and Margaret Beale Spencer, PhD’76, were also honored by the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences—the world’s largest general scientific society. (UChicago News)

Urine microbiome predicts cancer immunotherapy response
UChicago physician-scientist Randy Sweis, MD, demonstrated that the presence of certain strains of bacteria could tell us which bladder cancer patients would face recurrence after immunotherapy treatment. (Healio)

Diets high in fiber and yogurt cut lung cancer risk
By collecting data from several lung cancer studies involving more than 1.4 million adults from the US, Europe, and Asia, researchers showed that high-fiber, high-yogurt diets reduced lung cancer risk by one third. (Futurity)


Can autoimmunity cause neurological problems?

Can autoimmunity cause neurological problems?

by Elise Wachspress

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder. When those with celiac eat gluten—a group of proteins found in cereal grains like wheat and barley—their immune systems respond by inflaming and damaging the little “fingers” of tissue that absorb food nutrients in the small intestine.

About one in every 100 Americans has celiac, but many don’t realize it. The disease can be hard to diagnose, because symptoms are so diffuse: anemia, osteoporosis, loss of dental enamel, heartburn, headaches, tingling hands, joint pain, a blistery skin rash, etc. Children may suffer vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite, muscle wasting, and even failure to thrive; adolescents may be abnormally small for their age, with delayed puberty.

Among the hardest symptoms to pinpoint and link to celiac is what some patients call “brain fog.” Those with the disease often report episodes of headaches, depression, moodiness, difficulty concentrating, fumbling to choose words, and/or feeling tired even though they just got out of bed. Sometimes only when people are diagnosed with celiac, change to a gluten-free diet, and then find these symptoms disappear do they realize how celiac inflammation affected the clarity of their neural processing.

The problem is, total gluten elimination is hard to accomplish. While gluten-free foods and restaurants are becoming increasingly common, food is fundamental to most social relationships, and it’s hard to manage every interaction without seeming prickly or oversensitive.

And many “non-food” products use gluten as an edible “glue” to bind mixtures together, including some vitamins, medications, lipsticks and lip balms, even bouillon cubes. Then there are the products one might never suspect involve gluten, like pickles, hot cocoa mix (Celiac patients often make their own), and soy sauce (One can substitute the safer tamari).

So what happens when a patient with celiac has an inadvertent exposed to gluten? Or the pizza shows up in your child’s school and resistance is low? Some people find themselves living through several days when their brains just don’t seem to function. Work and school become a challenge, even for people who are normally bright and creative. People accidentally exposed to gluten report symptoms from irritability to anxiety to full-blown panic attacks.

Bana Jabri, MD, PhD, has long been interested in understanding the neurological distress that sometimes follows accidental gluten exposure. She wants to find out if immune factors called cytokines, released in response to gluten exposure, affect brain chemistry and the nerve centers feeding back to the gut. Understanding the relationship would provide a better understanding not only the neurological mechanisms involved in celiac disease, but also in other autoimmune conditions, like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, in which patients also report similarly diffuse cognitive impairment.

Jabri has established a collaboration with Jean Decety, PhD, a UChicago neuroscientist internationally recognized for his work in using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to understand affective behavior. While a handful of case studies have used fMRI to study extremely serious neurological symptoms in individual patients with celiac disease, no one has yet undertaken a larger study of how celiac creates the “brain fog” that seems such a common complaint.

The plan is to have patients undergo fMRI, immunological, and other testing before and after a controlled gluten ingestion, to map the changes in all these factors. Jabri and Decety hope the results will help generate novel insights into the neurological impact of the disease and potential therapeutic avenues to prevent these negative outcomes.

Right now they are searching for funding to support these studies. But what they find may make life a lot easier for the three million Americans living with celiac disease, some living in fear that they may accidentally ingest something that will put them in a fog for days.

Elise Wachspress is a senior communications strategist for the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development office


News roundup: October 2019

News roundup: October 2019

A selection of health news from the University of Chicago and around the globe curated just for you.

In the pancreas, common fungi may drive cancer
A new study found that certain fungi can settle in the pancreas, where the spur the growth of tumors. (New York Times and ScienceDaily)

Genetic differences in the immune system shape the microbiome
UChicago researchers showed that while the bacteria to which mice were exposed largely determined their resulting microbiome, genetic differences played a role as well. Drs. Chervonsky, Golovkina, Khan, and Antonopoulos featured. (The Forefront)

Polsky Center named the 2019 NASDAQ Center of Entrepreneurial Excellence
The award, presented at the annual Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers, represents the highest honor that university entrepreneurship centers can receive. (Polsky Center)

PTSD nearly doubles risk for infections
The study found that PTSD affects infection risks for men and women differently, having, for example, more of an effect on a woman’s risk of urinary tract infection and a man’s risk of skin infection. (Futurity)

A new CRISPR technique could fix almost all genetic diseases
A less error-prone DNA editing method could correct many more harmful mutations than was previously possible. (WIRED)