What Role Do Bacteria Play in Our Bodies?


Q&A with Dr. Highlander
A revolution in medicine has occurred over the past seven years involving the bacteria in and on your body, your “microbiome.” Someday soon you will be having fecal bacteria tests in the same way that you now have blood tests!  At the Howell Foundation luncheon on August 5th, Dr. Sarah Highlander from the J. Craig Venter Institute, shared the latest research regarding bacteria and health.

Before birth a baby has no bacteria but acquires them at the moment of birth from the mother’s vagina or, in the case of a Caesarian birth, from the mother’s skin. In fact, babies born by Caesarian are deficient in many species of bacteria. Babies also acquire more bacteria from breast feeding. The end result is 100 times more bacterial cells than human cells in an individual.

Different bacteria reside in different areas of the body and each individual has a signature profile of bacteria. These bacteria perform specific and important functions in each area of the body.

In the digestive tract bacteria:
  • Aid digestion by fermenting polysaccharides
  • Contribute essential vitamins
  • Contribute short chain fatty acids that curb inflammation
  • Process bile acids
  • Aid in the development of immunity
  • Protect from invasion of pathogenic bacteria by forming a mucus barrier

In other words, we could not live without these fellow travelers. And the balance of the bacteria in any given part of the body is critical. A healthy individual has a perfect balance of the different bacteria and the functions they perform. When this balance is tipped, an individual becomes ill and many of the functions listed above suffer. Thus, sequencing the microbiome can be a useful diagnostic and will likely become more common.

Clostridium difficile illustration 
property of the CDC
A striking example of an imbalance is an infection with Clostridium difficile (C. diff) which causes rampant, sometimes life-threatening, diarrhea.  Prior to her move to the Venter Institute, Dr. Highlander and her team in Texas cured a patient who was desperately ill with a C. diff infection with a single dose of three protective strains of bacteria.  More commonly, patients with C. diff infections are being treated by fecal transplant from a known healthy donor.    In fact, “poop pills” containing fecal matter from a pool of healthy donors are also showing promise for combatting C. diff infections. This is critically important in that almost half of patients presumed to be cured of C. diff with antibiotics have a recurrence that is antibiotic-resistant.

Finally, Dr. Highlander discussed two disease entities with genetic predispositions: IBS (including both Chrone’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis) and Celiac Disease. In both cases there is a decrease in bacterial diversity and an imbalance in bacterial strains including an increase in E. coli. These observations may ultimately guide researchers to better therapies for these diseases. The future appears to lie in “personalized bacteriotherapy” in which each patient would be treated with the bacteria that are out of balance.

In what is jokingly named the "icky month" at the Foundation, where coincidentally for the past couple of years we have had experts talk about our gut health during our summer lecture, Dr. Highlander did not disappoint! The novel approaches to keeping our gut healthy will indeed keep on leading the path to personalized medicine.


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About the Doris A. Howell Foundation:

The Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research is committed to keeping the women we love healthy, advancing women’s health through research and educating women to be catalysts for improving family health in the community.

The organization does so by funding scholarships to scientists researching issues affecting women’s health; providing a forum for medical experts, scientists, doctors, researchers, and authors to convey the timely information on topics relevant to women’s health and the health. of their families through its Lecture and Evening Series, and by funding research initiatives that will create women’s health awareness and advocacy in the community.
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