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Study in Africa Yields New Diabetes Gene

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Francis Collins Volunteering in Nigeria
Caption: Volunteering my medical services in Nigeria three decades ago inspired me to learn more about type 2 diabetes in Africa and beyond. Credit: Margaret Collins

When I volunteered to serve as a physician at a hospital in rural Nigeria more than 25 years ago, I expected to treat a lot of folks with infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis. And that certainly happened. What I didn’t expect was how many people needed care for type 2 diabetes (T2D) and the health problems it causes. Surprisingly, these individuals were generally not overweight, and the course of their illness seemed different than in the West.

The experience inspired me to join with other colleagues at Howard University, Washington, DC, to help found the Africa America Diabetes Mellitus (AADM) study. It aims to uncover genomic risk factors for T2D in Africa and, using that information, improve understanding of the condition around the world.

So, I’m pleased to report that, using genomic data from more than 5,000 volunteers, our AADM team recently discovered a new gene, called ZRANB3, that harbors a variant associated with T2D in sub-Saharan Africa [1]. Using sophisticated laboratory models, the team showed that a malfunctioning ZRANB3 gene impairs insulin production to control glucose levels in the bloodstream.

Since my first trip to Nigeria, the number of people with T2D has continued to rise. It’s now estimated that about 8 to 10 percent of Nigerians have some form of diabetes [2]. In Africa, diabetes affects more than 7 percent of the population, more than twice the incidence in 1980 [3].

The causes of T2D involve a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. I was particularly interested in finding out whether the genetic factors for T2D might be different in sub-Saharan Africa than in the West. But at the time, there was a dearth of genomic information about T2D in Africa, the cradle of humanity. To understand complex diseases like T2D fully, we need all peoples and continents represented in the research.

To begin to fill this research gap, the AADM team got underway and hasn’t looked back. In the latest study, led by Charles Rotimi at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, in partnership with multiple African diabetes experts, the AADM team enlisted 5,231 volunteers from Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. About half of the study’s participants had T2D and half did not.

As reported in Nature Communications, their genome-wide search for T2D gene variants turned up three interesting finds. Two were in genes previously linked to T2D risk in other human populations. The third involved a gene that codes for ZRANB3, an enzyme associated with DNA replication and repair that had never been reported in association with T2D.

To understand how ZRANB3 might influence a person’s risk for developing T2D, the researchers turned to zebrafish (Danio rerio), an excellent vertebrate model for its rapid development. The researchers found that the ZRANB3 gene is active in insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. That was important to know because people with T2D frequently have reduced numbers of beta cells, which compromises their ability to produce enough insulin.

The team next used CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tools either to “knock out” or reduce the expression of ZRANB3 in young zebrafish. In both cases, it led to increased loss of beta cells.

Additional study in the beta cells of mice provided more details. While normal beta cells released insulin in response to high levels of glucose, those with suppressed ZRANB3 activity couldn’t. Together, the findings show that ZRANB3 is important for beta cells to survive and function normally. It stands to reason, then, that people with a lower functioning variant of ZRANB3 would be more susceptible to T2D.

In many cases, T2D can be managed with some combination of diet, exercise, and oral medications. But some people require insulin to manage the disease. The new findings suggest, particularly for people of African ancestry, that the variant of the ZRANB3 gene that one inherits might help to explain those differences. People carrying particular variants of this gene also may benefit from beginning insulin treatment earlier, before their beta cells have been depleted.

So why wasn’t ZRANB3 discovered in the many studies on T2D carried out in the United States, Europe, and Asia? It turns out that the variant that predisposes Africans to this disease is extremely rare in these other populations. Only by studying Africans could this insight be uncovered.

More than 20 years ago, I helped to start the AADM project to learn more about the genetic factors driving T2D in sub-Saharan Africa. Other dedicated AADM leaders have continued to build the research project, taking advantage of new technologies as they came along. It’s profoundly gratifying that this project has uncovered such an impressive new lead, revealing important aspects of human biology that otherwise would have been missed. The AADM team continues to enroll volunteers, and the coming years should bring even more discoveries about the genetic factors that contribute to T2D.


[1] ZRANB3 is an African-specific type 2 diabetes locus associated with beta-cell mass and insulin response. Adeyemo AA, Zaghloul NA, Chen G, Doumatey AP, Leitch CC, Hostelley TL, Nesmith JE, Zhou J, Bentley AR, Shriner D, Fasanmade O, Okafor G, Eghan B Jr, Agyenim-Boateng K, Chandrasekharappa S, Adeleye J, Balogun W, Owusu S, Amoah A, Acheampong J, Johnson T, Oli J, Adebamowo C; South Africa Zulu Type 2 Diabetes Case-Control Study, Collins F, Dunston G, Rotimi CN. Nat Commun. 2019 Jul 19;10(1):3195.

[2] Diabetes mellitus in Nigeria: The past, present and future. Ogbera AO, Ekpebegh C. World J Diabetes. 2014 Dec 15;5(6):905-911.

[3] Global report on diabetes. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2016. World Health Organization.


Diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes ad Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Diabetes and African Americans (Department of Health and Human Services)

Why Use Zebrafish to Study Human Diseases (Intramural Research Program/NIH)

Charles Rotimi (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

NIH Support: National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

Targeting the Microbiome to Treat Malnutrition

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Caption: A Bangladeshi mother and child in the Nutritional Rehabilitation Unit.
Credit: International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh

A few years ago, researchers discovered that abnormalities in microbial communities, or microbiomes, in the intestine appear to contribute to childhood malnutrition. Now comes word that this discovery is being translated into action, with a new study showing that foods formulated to repair the “gut microbiome” may help malnourished kids rebuild their health [1].

In a month-long clinical trial in Bangladesh, 63 children received either regular foods to treat malnutrition or alternative formulations for needed calories and nutrition that also encouraged growth of beneficial microbes in the intestines. The kids who ate the microbiome-friendly diets showed improvements in their microbiome, which helps to extract and metabolize nutrients in our food to help the body grow. They also had significant improvements in key blood proteins associated with bone growth, brain development, immunity, and metabolism; those who ate standard therapeutic food did not experience the same benefit.

Globally, malnutrition affects an estimated 238 million children under the age 5, stunting their normal growth, compromising their health, and limiting their mental development [2]. Malnutrition can arise not only from a shortage of food but from dietary imbalances that don’t satisfy the body’s need for essential nutrients. Far too often, especially in impoverished areas, the condition can turn extremely severe and deadly. And the long term effects on intellectual development can limit the ability of a country’s citizens to lift themselves out of poverty.

Jeffrey Gordon, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and his NIH-supported research team have spent decades studying what constitutes a normal microbiome and how changes can affect health and disease. Their seminal studies have revealed that severely malnourished kids have “immature” microbiomes that don’t develop in the intestine like the microbial communities seen in well nourished, healthy children of the same age.

Gordon and team have also found that this microbial immaturity doesn’t resolve when kids consume the usual supplemental foods [3]. In another study, they turned to mice raised under sterile conditions and with no microbes of their own to demonstrate this cause and effect. The researchers colonized the intestines of the germ-free mice with microbes from malnourished children, and the rodents developed similar abnormalities in weight gain, bone growth, and metabolism [4].

All of this evidence raised a vital question: Could the right combination of foods “mature” the microbiome and help to steer malnourished children toward a healthier state?

To get the answer, Gordon and his colleagues at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Dhaka, Bangladesh, led by Tahmeed Ahmed, first had to formulate the right, microbiome-friendly food supplements, and that led to some interesting science. They carefully characterized over time the immature microbiomes found in Bangladeshi children treated for severe malnutrition. This allowed them to test their new method for analyzing how individual microbial species fluctuate over time and in relationship to one another in the intestine [5]. The team then paired up these data with measurements of a set of more than 1,300 blood proteins from the children that provide “readouts” of their biological state.

Their investigation identified a network of 15 bacterial species that consistently interact in the gut microbiomes of Bangladeshi children. This network became their means to characterize sensitively and accurately the development of a child’s microbiome and/or its relative state of repair.

Next, they turned to mice colonized with the same collections of microbes found in the intestines of the Bangladeshi children. Gordon’s team then tinkered with the animals’ diets in search of ingredients commonly consumed by young children in Bangladesh that also appeared to encourage a healthier, more mature microbiome. They did similar studies in young pigs, whose digestive and immune systems more closely resemble humans.

The Gordon team settled on three candidate microbiome-friendly formulations. Two included chickpea flour, soy flour, peanut flour, and banana at different concentrations; one of these two also included milk powder. The third combined chickpea flour and soy flour. All three contained similar amounts of protein, fat, and calories.

The researchers then launched a randomized, controlled clinical trial with children from a year to 18 months old with moderate acute malnutrition. These young children were enrolled into one of four treatment groups, each including 14 to 17 kids. Three groups received one of the newly formulated foods. The fourth group received standard rice-and-lentil-based meals.

The children received these supplemental meals twice a day for four weeks at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research followed by two-weeks of observation. Mothers were encouraged throughout the study to continue breastfeeding their children.

The formulation containing chickpea, soy, peanut, and banana, but no milk powder, stood out above the rest in the study. Children taking this supplement showed a dramatic shift toward a healthier state as measured by those more than 1,300 blood proteins. Their gut microbiomes also resembled those of healthy children their age.

Their new findings published in the journal Science offer the first evidence that a therapeutic food, developed to support the growth and development of a healthy microbiome, might come with added benefits for children suffering from malnutrition. Importantly, the researchers took great care to design the supplements with foods that are readily available, affordable, culturally acceptable, and palatable for young children in Bangladesh.

A month isn’t nearly long enough to see how the new foods would help children grow and recover over time. So, the researchers are now conducting a much larger study of their leading supplement in children with histories of malnutrition, to explore its longer-term health effects for them and their microbiomes. The hope is that these new foods and others adapted for use around the world soon will help many more kids grow up to be healthy adults.


[1] Effects of microbiota-directed foods in gnotobiotic animals and undernourished children. Gehrig JL, Venkatesh S, Chang HW, Hibberd MC, Kung VL, Cheng J, Chen RY, Subramanian S, Cowardin CA, Meier MF, O’Donnell D, Talcott M, Spears LD, Semenkovich CF, Henrissat B, Giannone RJ, Hettich RL, Ilkayeva O, Muehlbauer M, Newgard CB, Sawyer C, Head RD, Rodionov DA, Arzamasov AA, Leyn SA, Osterman AL, Hossain MI, Islam M, Choudhury N, Sarker SA, Huq S, Mahmud I, Mostafa I, Mahfuz M, Barratt MJ, Ahmed T, Gordon JI. Science. 2019 Jul 12;365(6449).

[2] Childhood Malnutrition. World Health Organization

[3] Persistent gut microbiota immaturity in malnourished Bangladeshi children. Subramanian S, Huq S, Yatsunenko T, Haque R, Mahfuz M, Alam MA, Benezra A, DeStefano J, Meier MF, Muegge BD, Barratt MJ, VanArendonk LG, Zhang Q, Province MA, Petri WA Jr, Ahmed T, Gordon JI. Nature. 2014 Jun 19;510(7505):417-21.

[4] Gut bacteria that prevent growth impairments transmitted by microbiota from malnourished children. Blanton LV, Charbonneau MR, Salih T, Barratt MJ, Venkatesh S, Ilkaveya O, Subramanian S, Manary MJ, Trehan I, Jorgensen JM, Fan YM, Henrissat B, Leyn SA, Rodionov DA, Osterman AL, Maleta KM, Newgard CB, Ashorn P, Dewey KG, Gordon JI. Science. 2016 Feb 19;351(6275).

[5] A sparse covarying unit that describes healthy and impaired human gut microbiota development. Raman AS, Gehrig JL, Venkatesh S, Chang HW, Hibberd MC, Subramanian S, Kang G, Bessong PO, Lima AAM, Kosek MN, Petri WA Jr, Rodionov DA, Arzamasov AA, Leyn SA, Osterman AL, Huq S, Mostafa I, Islam M, Mahfuz M, Haque R, Ahmed T, Barratt MJ, Gordon JI. Science. 2019 Jul 12;365(6449).


Childhood Nutrition Facts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gordon Lab (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis)

NIH Human Microbiome Project

International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (Dhaka, Bangladesh)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Cancer Institute

Enlisting CRISPR in the Quest for an HIV Cure

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Today, thanks to remarkable advances in antiretroviral drugs, most people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can expect to live an almost normal lifespan. But that means staying on medications for life. If those are stopped, HIV comes roaring back in just weeks. Finding a permanent cure for HIV infection, where the virus is completely and permanently eliminated from the body, has proven much tougher. So, I’m encouraged by recent work that shows it may be possible to eliminate HIV in a mouse model, and perhaps—with continued progress—someday we will actually cure HIV in humans.

This innovative approach relies on a one-two punch: drugs and genetic editing. First, HIV-infected mice received an experimental, long-acting form of antiretroviral therapy (ART) that suppresses viral replication. This step cleared the active HIV infection. But more was needed because HIV can “hide” by inserting its DNA into its host’s chromosomes—lying dormant until conditions are right for viral replication. To get at this infectious reservoir, researchers infused the mice with a gene-editing system designed to snip out any HIV DNA still lurking in the genomes of their spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and other cells. The result? Researchers detected no signs of HIV in more than one-third of mice that received the combination treatment.

The new study in Nature Communications is the product of a collaboration between the NIH-funded labs of Howard Gendelman, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, and Kamel Khalili, Temple University, Philadelphia [1]. A virologist by training, Khalili years ago realized that HIV’s ability to integrate into the genomes of its host’s cells meant that the disease couldn’t be thought of only as a typical viral infection. It had a genetic component too, suggesting that an HIV cure might require a genetic answer.

At the time, however, the tools to remove HIV DNA from human cells without harming the human genome weren’t available. That’s changed in recent years with the discovery and subsequent development of a very precise gene-editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas9.

CRISPR/Cas9 editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome, where it can be used to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. Efforts are underway to apply CRISPR/Cas9 to the treatment of sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, and more.

Could CRISPR/Cas9 also remove HIV DNA from infected cells and eliminate the infection for good? Such an approach might be particularly helpful for people on ART who have persistent HIV DNA in the cells of their cerebrospinal fluid. A recent NIH-funded study in Journal of Clinical Investigation found that an association between this HIV reservoir and neurocognitive difficulties [2]

Earlier work by Khalili’s team showed that CRISPR could indeed remove HIV DNA from the genomes of host cells [3]. The problem was that, when delivered on its own, CRISPR couldn’t snip out every last bit of viral DNA from all cells as needed to get rid of HIV completely and permanently. It was crucial to reduce the burden of HIV genomes to the lowest possible level.

Meanwhile, Gendelman’s lab had been working to develop a new and more effective way to deliver ART. Often delivered in combinations, standard ART drugs are effective in suppressing HIV replication. However, people need to take their oral medications daily without fail. Also, most ART triple therapy drugs are water soluble, which means its cocktail of medications are swiftly processed and excreted by the body without reaching many places in the body where HIV hides.

In his quest to make ART work more effectively with fewer doses, Gendelman’s team altered the chemical composition of antiretroviral medicines, generating fat-soluble drug nanocrystals. The nanocrystals were then packaged into nanoparticles and delivered by intramuscular injection. The new drug formulation, known as long-acting slow-effective release (LASER) ART, reaches lymph nodes, spleen, gut, and brain tissues where HIV lurks [4]. Once there, it’s stored and released slowly over time. Still, like conventional ART, LASER ART can never completely cure HIV.

So, Gendelman teamed up with Khalili to ask: What would happen if LASER ART was followed by a round of CRISPR/Cas9? In a series of studies, the researchers tested LASER ART and CRISPR/Cas9, both alone and in combination. A total of 23 HIV-infected mice engineered to have some “humanized” immune features received the experimental combination therapy.

As expected, neither LASER ART nor CRISPR/Cas9 by itself proved sufficient to eradicate HIV in the mice. However, when LASER ART and CRISPR/Cas9 were delivered sequentially, the results were much different. Researchers found no evidence of HIV in the spleens or other tissues of more than one-third of the sequentially treated animals.

It’s important to note that this gene-editing approach to eradicating HIV is being applied to non-reproductive cells (somatic). The NIH does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos (germline) [5].

Of course, mice, even with humanized immune systems, are not humans. More research is needed to replicate these findings and to figure out how to make this approach to HIV treatment more effective in animal models before we can consider moving into human clinical trials. Still, these findings do provide a new reason for increased hope that an actual cure may ultimately be found for the tens of millions of people in the United States and around the globe now living with HIV.


[1] Sequential LASER ART and CRISPR Treatments Eliminate HIV-1 in a Subset of Infected Humanized Mice. Dash PK, Kaminski R, Bella R, Su H, Mathews S, Ahooyi TM, Chen C, Mancuso P, Sariyer R, Ferrante P, Donadoni M, Robinson JA, Sillman B, Lin Z, Hilaire JR, Banoub M, Elango M, Gautam N, Mosley RL, Poluektova LY, McMillan J, Bade AN, Gorantla S, Sariyer IK, Burdo TH, Young WB, Amini S, Gordon J, Jacobson JM, Edagwa B, Khalili K, Gendelman HE. Nat Commun. 2019 Jul 2;10(1):2753.

[2] Spudich S et al. Persistent HIV-infected Cells in Cerebrospinal Fluid are Associated with Poorer Neurocognitive Performance. J Clin Invest. 2019. DOI: 10.1172/JCI127413 (2019).

[3] In Vivo Excision of HIV-1 Provirus by saCas9 and Multiplex Single-Guide RNAs in Animal Models. Yin C, Zhang T, Qu X, Zhang Y, Putatunda R, Xiao X, Li F, Xiao W, Zhao H, Dai S, Qin X, Mo X, Young WB, Khalili K, Hu W. Mol Ther. 2017 May 3;25(5):1168-1186.

[4] Creation of a nanoformulated cabotegravir prodrug with improved antiretroviral profiles. Zhou T, Su H, Dash P, Lin Z, Dyavar Shetty BL, Kocher T, Szlachetka A, Lamberty B, Fox HS, Poluektova L, Gorantla S, McMillan J, Gautam N, Mosley RL, Alnouti Y, Edagwa B, Gendelman HE. Biomaterials. 2018 Jan;151:53-65.

[5] Statement on Claim of First Gene-Edited Babies by Chinese Researcher. The NIH Director, NIH. 2018 November 28.


HIV/AIDS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

HIV Treatment: The Basics (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Fast Facts (

Global Statistics (

Kamel Khalili (Temple University, Philadelphia, PA)

Howard Gendelman (University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute on Aging; National Institute on Drug Abuse; Common Fund

Anesthesia Study Yields New Insights into Neuroscience of Sleep

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Woman receiving anesthesia
Credit: iStock/herjua

General anesthesia has been around since the 1840s, when most people still traveled by horse and buggy. Yet, in this age of jet planes and electric cars, there are still many unknowns about how general anesthesia works.

The prevailing view has long been that general anesthesia exerts a sedative effect that puts us under, along with a pain-relieving effect that works by temporarily shutting down transmission of sensations from other parts of the body to the brain. Now, researchers have discovered that, at least in mice, some types of general anesthesia may actually activate a specialized area of the brain—findings that not only may provide new insights into anesthesia, but may enhance our understanding of sleep.

In a recent study in the journal Neuron, the NIH-supported lab of Fan Wang at Duke University, Durham, NC, used general anesthesia as a tool to learn more about mammalian brain activity. When they placed mice under multiple classes of general anesthesia, a cluster of neurons were activated in the brain’s hypothalamus that produce slow, oscillating waves similar to those observed in the brains of mice that were sleeping deeply. When these neurons were later artificially deactivated, the effects of general anesthesia were shortened. Experiments in sleeping mice also showed that similar deactivation disrupts natural sleep. The discovery suggests there may be a neural pathway in the mammalian brain that is shared by general anesthesia and natural sleep, perhaps opening the door to new drugs for anesthesia, pain management, and sleep disorders [1].

Specifically, Wang’s group is focused on a part of the hypothalamus called the supraoptic nucleus (SON), which consists of about 3,000 neurons. These neurons are wired into the brain’s neuroendocrine system, a vast regulatory system between brain and body. Each SON neuron has two arms: one extends to the base of the brain, where it triggers the pituitary gland to release hormones; the other directly releases peptide hormones into the general circulation.

It’s not altogether surprising that the hypothalamus would be involved regulating sleep. Previous work had indicated that another part of the hypothalamus might serve as an on-off switch between wakefulness and sleep [2]. The neurons also secrete neuropeptides, such as galanin and GABA. that inhibit areas of the brainstem involved in wakefulness.

But what most fascinated Wang is that her experiments found that SOS cells fire constantly in mice that have been kept awake past their normal bedtime, but stop firing once the animals are allowed to sleep. This prompted her team to turn its attention to the 80 percent of SON neurons that secrete the hormones dynorphin and vasopressin, which are secreted in the general circulation and send a wide range of signals to organs throughout the body.

Though mice are not humans and much more work remains to be done, Wang says her data raise the possibility that sleep, like hunger, may be regulated by a feedback loop of hormones, traveling from brain to other body parts and back. As proposed, the SON cells secrete hormones into the body during periods of wakefulness. As the level of the secreted messengers build up, the body signals to the brain that it’s tired, prompting the SOS neurons to activate a different program, sending signals that tell other parts of the brain to go to sleep.

Discovering a homeostatic sleep mechanism certainly wasn’t what surgeon William T. G. Morton had in mind when he first demonstrated the concept of general anesthesia in the 19th Century. Yet more than 175 years later, Morton’s major clinical advance is now yielding unexpected benefits for basic neuroscience research, providing yet another example of how one never knows where biomedical exploration may take us.


[1] A Common Neuroendocrine Substrate for Diverse General Anesthetics and Sleep. Jiang-Xie LF, Yin L, Zhao S, Prevosto V, Han BX, Dzirasa K, Wang F. Neuron. 2019 Apr 18. pii: S0896-6273(19)30296-X.

[2] Activation of ventrolateral preoptic neurons during sleep. Sherin JE, Shiromani PJ, McCarley RW, Saper CB. Science. 1996 Jan 12;271(5246):216-219.


Anesthesia (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

History of Anesthesia (Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology, Schaumburg, IL)

Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Fan Wang (Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health

Gut-Dwelling Bacterium Consumes Parkinson’s Drug

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Gut bacteria eating a pill

Scientists continue to uncover the many fascinating ways in which the trillions of microbes that inhabit the human body influence our health. Now comes yet another surprising discovery: a medicine-eating bacterium residing in the human gut that may affect how well someone responds to the most commonly prescribed drug for Parkinson’s disease.

There have been previous hints that gut microbes might influence the effectiveness of levodopa (L-dopa), which helps to ease the stiffness, rigidity, and slowness of movement associated with Parkinson’s disease. Now, in findings published in Science, an NIH-funded team has identified a specific, gut-dwelling bacterium that consumes L-dopa [1]. The scientists have also identified the bacterial genes and enzymes involved in the process.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative condition in which the dopamine-producing cells in a portion of the brain called the substantia nigra begin to sicken and die. Because these cells and their dopamine are critical for controlling movement, their death leads to the familiar tremor, difficulty moving, and the characteristic slow gait. As the disease progresses, cognitive and behavioral problems can take hold, including depression, personality shifts, and sleep disturbances.

For the 10 million people in the world now living with this neurodegenerative disorder, and for those who’ve gone before them, L-dopa has been for the last 50 years the mainstay of treatment to help alleviate those motor symptoms. The drug is a precursor of dopamine, and, unlike dopamine, it has the advantage of crossing the blood-brain barrier. Once inside the brain, an enzyme called DOPA decarboxylase converts L-dopa to dopamine.

Unfortunately, only a small fraction of L-dopa ever reaches the brain, contributing to big differences in the drug’s efficacy from person to person. Since the 1970s, researchers have suspected that these differences could be traced, in part, to microbes in the gut breaking down L-dopa before it gets to the brain.

To take a closer look in the new study, Vayu Maini Rekdal and Emily Balskus, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, turned to data from the NIH-supported Human Microbiome Project (HMP). The project used DNA sequencing to identify and characterize the diverse collection of microbes that populate the healthy human body.

The researchers sifted through the HMP database for bacterial DNA sequences that appeared to encode an enzyme capable of converting L-dopa to dopamine. They found what they were looking for in a bacterial group known as Enterococcus, which often inhabits the human gastrointestinal tract.

Next, they tested the ability of seven representative Enterococcus strains to transform L-dopa. Only one fit the bill: a bacterium called Enterococcus faecalis, which commonly resides in a healthy gut microbiome. In their tests, this bacterium avidly consumed all the L-dopa, using its own version of a decarboxylase enzyme. When a specific gene in its genome was inactivated, E. faecalis stopped breaking down L-dopa.

These studies also revealed variability among human microbiome samples. In seven stool samples, the microbes tested didn’t consume L-dopa at all. But in 12 other samples, microbes consumed 25 to 98 percent of the L-dopa!

The researchers went on to find a strong association between the degree of L-dopa consumption and the abundance of E. faecalis in a particular microbiome sample. They also showed that adding E. faecalis to a sample that couldn’t consume L-dopa transformed it into one that could.

So how can this information be used to help people with Parkinson’s disease? Answers are already appearing. The researchers have found a small molecule that prevents the E. faecalis decarboxylase from modifying L-dopa—without harming the microbe and possibly destabilizing an otherwise healthy gut microbiome.

The finding suggests that the human gut microbiome might hold a key to predicting how well people with Parkinson’s disease will respond to L-dopa, and ultimately improving treatment outcomes. The finding also serves to remind us just how much the microbiome still has to tell us about human health and well-being.


[1] Discovery and inhibition of an interspecies gut bacterial pathway for Levodopa metabolism. Maini Rekdal V, Bess EN, Bisanz JE, Turnbaugh PJ, Balskus EP. Science. 2019 Jun 14;364(6445).


Parkinson’s Disease Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

NIH Human Microbiome Project

Balskus Lab (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

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