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Connecting the Dots: Oral Infection to Rheumatoid Arthritis

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An elderly woman holds her wrist. An inset shows gum disease in her mouth. Bacteria and antibodies from the gums move to the joints where the antibodies stick to the surface of the joints.

To keep your teeth and gums healthy for a lifetime, it’s important to brush and floss each day and see your dentist regularly. But what you might not often stop to consider is how essential good oral health really is to your overall well-being. The mouth, after all, is connected to the rest of the body, and oral infections can contribute to problems elsewhere.

A good case in point comes from a study just published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The study, though small, offers some of the most convincing evidence yet for a direct link between gum, or periodontal, disease and the rheumatoid arthritis that flares most commonly in the hands, wrists, and knees [1]. If confirmed in larger follow-up studies, the finding suggests that one way for people with both diseases to contend with painful arthritic flare-ups will be to prevent them by practicing good oral hygiene and controlling their periodontal disease.

For many years, there had been suggestions that the oral bacteria causing periodontal disease might contribute to rheumatoid arthritis. For instance, past studies have found that periodontal disease occurs even more often in people with rheumatoid arthritis. People with both conditions also tend to have more severe arthritic symptoms that can be more stubbornly resistant to treatment.

What’s been missing is the precise underlying mechanisms to confirm the connection. To help connect the dots, a research team, which included Dana Orange, Rockefeller University, New York, NY, and William Robinson, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, decided to look closer.

They looked first in the blood, not directly at an arthritic joint or an inflamed periodontium, the tissues that hold a tooth in place. They were interested in whether telltale changes in the blood of people with rheumatoid arthritis correlated with the start of another painful flare-up in one or more of their joints.

One of those possible changes involves proteins that carry a particular chemical modification that places the amino acid citrulline on their surface. These citrulline-marked proteins are found in many parts of the human body, including the joints. Intriguingly, they also are present on bacteria, including those in the mouth.

Because of this bacterial connection, the researchers looked in the blood for a specific set of antibodies known as ACPAs, short for anti-citrullinated protein antibodies. They recognize citrullinated proteins that are foreign to the body and mark them for attack.

But the attack isn’t always perfectly aimed, and studies have shown the presence of ACPAs in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis is associated with increasing disease activity and more frequent arthritis flares. Periodontal disease, too, is especially common in people with rheumatoid arthritis who have abnormally high levels of circulating ACPAs.

In the new study, the researchers followed five women with rheumatoid arthritis for one to four years. Two of them had severe periodontal disease while the other three had no periodontal disease.

Each week, the study volunteers provided a small blood sample for researchers to study changes at the level of RNA, the genetic material that encodes proteins. They also studied changes in certain immune cells, along with any changes in their medication, dental care, or arthritis symptoms. For additional information, they also looked at blood and joint fluid samples from 67 other people with and without arthritis, including individuals with healthy gums or mild, moderate, or severe periodontal disease.

Overall, the evidence shows that people with more severe periodontal disease experienced repeated influxes of oral bacteria into their blood even when they hadn’t had a recent dental procedure. These findings suggested that when their inflamed gums became more damaged and “leaky,” bacteria in the mouth could spill into the bloodstream.

The researchers also found that those oral invaders carried many citrullinated proteins. Once they got into the bloodstream, inflammatory immune cells detected them and released ACPAs.

The researchers showed in the lab that those antibodies bind the same oral bacteria detected in the blood of people with periodontal disease and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, those with both conditions had a wide variety of genetically distinct ACPAs, as would be expected if their immune systems were challenged repeatedly over time with oral bacteria.

The overarching idea is that these antibodies prime the immune system to attack oral bacteria. But after it gets started, the attack mistakenly expands and targets citrullinated proteins in the joints. That triggers a flare-up in a joint and the characteristic inflammation, stiffness, and joint damage.

While more study is needed to fill in the molecular details, this discovery raises an encouraging possibility. Taking care of your teeth and periodontal disease isn’t just a wise idea to maintain good oral health over a lifetime. For some of the approximately 1 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis, it may help to manage and perhaps even prevent a painful flare-up in one or more of their affected joints.


[1] Oral mucosal breaks trigger anti-citrullinated bacterial and human protein antibody responses in rheumatoid arthritis. Brewer RC, Lanz TV, Hale CR, Sepich-Poore GD, Martino C, Swafford AD, Carroll TS, Kongpachith S, Blum LK, Elliott SE, Blachere NE, Parveen S, Fak J, Yao V, Troyanskaya O, Frank MO, Bloom MS, Jahanbani S, Gomez AM, Iyer R, Ramadoss NS, Sharpe O, Chandrasekaran S, Kelmenson LB, Wang Q, Wong H, Torres HL, Wiesen M, Graves DT, Deane KD, Holers VM, Knight R, Darnell RB, Robinson WH, Orange DE. Sci Transl Med. 2023 Feb 22;15(684):eabq8476.


Rheumatoid Arthritis (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases)

Periodontal (Gum) Disease (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

Oral Hygiene (NIDCR)

Dana Orange (Rockefeller University, New York NY)

Robinson Lab (Stanford University, Stanford, CA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Cancer Institute

More Clues into ME/CFS Discovered in Gut Microbiome

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Gut microbiome. Butyrate production in people with ME/CFS goes down. Microscopic view of gut microbes from a woman sleeping

As many as 2.5 million Americans live with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS for short. It’s a serious disease that can often arise after an infection, leaving people profoundly ill for decades with pain, cognitive difficulties, severe fatigue, and other debilitating symptoms.

Because ME/CFS has many possible causes, it doesn’t affect everybody in the same way. That’s made studying the disease especially challenging. But NIH is now supporting specialized research centers on ME/CFS in the hope that greater collaboration among scientists will cut through the biological complexity and reveal answers for people with ME/CFS and their families.

So, I’m pleased to share some progress on this research front from two NIH-funded ME/CFS Collaborative Research Centers. The findings, published in two papers from the latest issue of the journal Cell Host & Microbe, add further evidence connecting ME/CFS to distinctive disruptions in the trillions of microbes that naturally live in our gastrointestinal tracts, called the gut microbiome [1,2].

Right now, the evidence establishes an association, not direct causation, meaning more work is needed to nail down this lead. But it’s a solid lead, suggesting that imbalances in certain bacterial species inhabiting the gut could be used as measurable biomarkers to aid in the accurate and timely diagnosis of ME/CFS. It also points to a possible therapeutic target to explore.

The first paper comes from Julia Oh and her colleagues at The Jackson Laboratory, Farmington, CT, and the second publication was led by Brent L. Williams and colleagues at Columbia University, New York. While the causes of ME/CFS remain unknown, the teams recognized the disease involves many underlying factors, including changes in metabolism, immunity, and the nervous system.

Earlier studies also had pointed to a role for the gut microbiome in ME/CFS, although those studies were limited in their size and ability to tease out precise microbial differences. Given the intimate connections between the microbiome and immune system, the teams behind these new studies set out to look even deeper into the microbiome in larger numbers of people with and without ME/CFS.

At the Jackson Laboratory, Oh, Derya Unutmaz, and colleagues joined forces with other ME/CFS experts to study microbiome abnormalities in different phases of ME/CFS. They matched clinical data (the medical history) with fecal and blood samples (the biological history) from 149 people with ME/CFS, including 74 who had been diagnosed within the previous four years and another 75 who had been diagnosed more than a decade ago. They also enlisted 79 people to serve as healthy volunteers.

Their in-depth microbial analyses showed that the more short-term ME/CFS group had less microbial diversity in their guts than the other two groups. This suggested a disruption, or imbalance, in a previously stable gut microbiome early in the disease. Interestingly, those who had been diagnosed longer with ME/CFS had apparently re-established a stable gut microbiome that was comparable to the healthy volunteers.

Oh’s team also examined detailed clinical and lifestyle data from the participants. Combining this information with genetic and metabolic data, they found that they could accurately classify and differentiate ME/CFS from healthy controls. Through this classification approach, they discovered that individuals with long-term ME/CFS had a more balanced microbiome but showed more severe clinical symptoms and progressive metabolic irregularities compared to the other two groups.

In the second study, Williams, Columbia’s W. Ian Lipkin, and their collaborators also analyzed the genetic makeup of gut bacteria in fecal samples from a geographically diverse group of 106 people with ME/CFS and another 91 healthy volunteers. Their extensive genomic analyses revealed key differences in microbiome diversity, abundance, metabolism, and the interactions among various dominant species of gut bacteria.

Of particular note, Williams team found that people with ME/CFS had abnormally low levels of several bacterial species, including Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (F. prausnitzii) and Eubacterium rectale. Both bacteria ferment non-digestible dietary fiber in the GI tract to produce a nutrient called butyrate. Intriguingly, Oh’s team also uncovered changes in several butyrate-producing microbial species, including F. prausnitzii.

Further detailed analyses in the Williams lab confirmed that the observed reduction in these bacteria was associated with reduced butyrate production in people with ME/CFS. That’s of special interest because butyrate serves as a primary energy source for cells that line the gut. Butyrate provides those cells with up to 70 percent of the energy they need, while supporting gut immunity.

Butyrate and other metabolites detected in the blood are important for regulating immune, metabolic, and endocrine functions throughout the body. That includes the amino acid tryptophan. The Oh team also found all ME/CFS participants had a reduction in gut microbes associated with breaking down tryptophan.

While butyrate-producing bacteria were found in smaller numbers, other microbes with links to autoimmune and inflammatory bowel diseases were increased. Williams’ group also reported an abundance of F. prausnitzii was inversely associated with fatigue severity in ME/CFS, further suggesting a possible link between changes in these gut bacteria and disease symptoms.

It is exciting to see this more-collaborative approach to ME/CFS research starting to cut through the biological complexity of this disease. More data and fresh leads will be coming in the months and years ahead. It is my sincere hope that they bring us closer to our ultimate goal: to help the millions of people with ME/CFS recover and reclaim their lives from this terrible disease.

I should also mention later this year on December 12-13, NIH will host a research conference on ME/CFS. The conference will be held in-person at NIH, Bethesda, MD, and virtually. It also will highlight recent research advances in the field. The NIH will post information about the conference in the months ahead. Be sure to check back, if you’d like to attend.


[1] Multi-‘omics of host-microbiome interactions in short- and long-term Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Xiong, et al. Cell Host Microbe. 2023 Feb 8;31(2):273-287.e5.

[2] Deficient butyrate-producing capacity in the gut microbiome is associated with bacterial network disturbances and fatigue symptoms in ME/CFS. Guo, et al. Cell Host Microbe. 2023 Feb 8;31(2):288-304.e8.


About ME/CFS (NIH)

ME/CFS Resources (NIH)

Trans-NIH Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Working Group (ME/

Advancing ME/CFS Research (NIH)

Brent Williams (Columbia University, New York)

Julia Oh (The Jackson Laboratory, Farmington, CT)

Video: Perspectives on ME/CFS featuring Julia Oh (Vimeo)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Using AI to Find New Antibiotics Still a Work in Progress

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Protein over a computer network

Each year, more than 2.8 million people in the United States develop bacterial infections that don’t respond to treatment and sometimes turn life-threatening [1]. Their infections are antibiotic-resistant, meaning the bacteria have changed in ways that allow them to withstand our current widely used arsenal of antibiotics. It’s a serious and growing health-care problem here and around the world. To fight back, doctors desperately need new antibiotics, including novel classes of drugs that bacteria haven’t seen and developed ways to resist.

Developing new antibiotics, however, involves much time, research, and expense. It’s also fraught with false leads. That’s why some researchers have turned to harnessing the predictive power of artificial intelligence (AI) in hopes of selecting the most promising leads faster and with greater precision.

It’s a potentially paradigm-shifting development in drug discovery, and a recent NIH-funded study, published in the journal Molecular Systems Biology, demonstrates AI’s potential to streamline the process of selecting future antibiotics [2]. The results are also a bit sobering. They highlight the current limitations of one promising AI approach, showing that further refinement will still be needed to maximize its predictive capabilities.

These findings come from the lab of James Collins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, and his recently launched Antibiotics-AI Project. His audacious goal is to develop seven new classes of antibiotics to treat seven of the world’s deadliest bacterial pathogens in just seven years. What makes this project so bold is that only two new classes of antibiotics have reached the market in the last 50 years!

In the latest study, Collins and his team looked to an AI program called AlphaFold2 [3]. The name might ring a bell. AlphaFold’s AI-powered ability to predict protein structures was a finalist in Science Magazine’s 2020 Breakthrough of the Year. In fact, AlphaFold has been used already to predict the structures of more than 200 million proteins, or almost every known protein on the planet [4].

AlphaFold employs a deep learning approach that can predict most protein structures from their amino acid sequences about as well as more costly and time-consuming protein-mapping techniques.
In the deep learning models used to predict protein structure, computers are “trained” on existing data. As computers “learn” to understand complex relationships within the training material, they develop a model that can then be applied for making predictions of 3D protein structures from linear amino acid sequences without relying on new experiments in the lab.

Collins and his team hoped to combine AlphaFold with computer simulations commonly used in drug discovery as a way to predict interactions between essential bacterial proteins and antibacterial compounds. If it worked, researchers could then conduct virtual rapid screens of millions of new synthetic drug compounds targeting key bacterial proteins that existing antibiotics don’t. It would also enable the rapid development of antibiotics that work in novel ways, exactly what doctors need to treat antibiotic-resistant infections.

To test the strategy, Collins and his team focused first on the predicted structures of 296 essential proteins from the Escherichia coli bacterium as well as 218 antibacterial compounds. Their computer simulations then predicted how strongly any two molecules (essential protein and antibacterial) would bind together based on their shapes and physical properties.

It turned out that screening many antibacterial compounds against many potential targets in E. coli led to inaccurate predictions. For example, when comparing their computational predictions with actual interactions for 12 essential proteins measured in the lab, they found that their simulated model had about a 50:50 chance of being right. In other words, it couldn’t identify true interactions between drugs and proteins any better than random guessing.

They suspect one reason for their model’s poor performance is that the protein structures used to train the computer are fixed, not flexible and shifting physical configurations as happens in real life. To improve their success rate, they ran their predictions through additional machine-learning models that had been trained on data to help them “learn” how proteins and other molecules reconfigure themselves and interact. While this souped-up model got somewhat better results, the researchers report that they still aren’t good enough to identify promising new drugs and their protein targets.

What now? In future studies, the Collins lab will continue to incorporate and train the computers on even more biochemical and biophysical data to help with the predictive process. That’s why this study should be interpreted as an interim progress report on an area of science that will only get better with time.

But it’s also a sobering reminder that the quest to find new classes of antibiotics won’t be easy—even when aided by powerful AI approaches. We certainly aren’t there yet, but I’m confident that we will get there to give doctors new therapeutic weapons and turn back the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections.


[1] 2019 Antibiotic resistance threats report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[2] Benchmarking AlphaFold-enabled molecular docking predictions for antibiotic discovery. Wong F, Krishnan A, Zheng EJ, Stark H, Manson AL, Earl AM, Jaakkola T, Collins JJ. Molecular Systems Biology. 2022 Sept 6. 18: e11081.

[3] Highly accurate protein structure prediction with AlphaFold. Jumper J, Evans R, Pritzel A, Kavukcuoglu K, Kohli P, Hassabis D., et al. Nature. 2021 Aug;596(7873):583-589.

[4] ‘The entire protein universe’: AI predicts shape of nearly every known protein. Callaway E. Nature. 2022 Aug;608(7921):15-16.


Antimicrobial (Drug) Resistance (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Collins Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

The Antibiotics-AI Project, The Audacious Project (TED)

AlphaFold (Deep Mind, London, United Kingdom)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Unraveling the Role of the Skin Microbiome in Health and Disease

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broad areas of yellow with dots of magenta and green
Caption: Healthy human skin cells (yellow) are home to bacteria (bright pink), fungi (light blue), and other microorganisms. Credit: Alex Valm, University at Albany, NY

Human skin is home to diverse ecosystems including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These microbial communities comprise hundreds of species and are collectively known as the skin microbiome. The skin microbiome is thought to play a vital role in fending off disease-causing microorganisms (pathogens), boosting barrier protection, and aiding immune defenses.

Maintaining a balanced skin microbiome involves a complex and dynamic interplay among microorganisms, immune cells, skin cells, and other factors. In general, bacteria far outnumber viral, fungal, or other microbial species on the skin. Bacterial communities, which are strongly influenced by conditions such as skin moisture, temperature, and pH, vary widely across the body. For example, facial cheek skin hosts mostly Cutibacterium along with a bit of the skin fungus Malassezia. The heel is colonized by different types of bacteria including Staphylococcus and Corynebacteria.

In some diseases, such as acne and eczema, the skin microbiome is altered. Typically, this means an increase in pathogenic microorganisms and a decrease in beneficial ones. An altered skin microbiome can also be associated with inflammation, severe disease symptoms, and changes in the human immune system.

Heidi H. Kong is working to understand the role of the skin microbiome in health and disease. She is a senior investigator in the Intramural Research Program at NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and an adjunct investigator at NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI).

More than a decade ago, Kong and Julie A. Segre, an intramural researcher at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, analyzed the microbial makeup of healthy individuals. Kong swabbed the skin of these healthy volunteers in 20 different sites, from the forehead to the toenail. The study revealed that the surface of the human body provides various environmental niches, depending on whether the skin is moist, dry, or sebaceous (oily). Different bacterial species predominate in each niche. Kong and Segre were particularly interested in body areas that have predilections for disease. For example, psoriasis is often found on the outside of elbows and knees, and the back of the scalp.

Earlier this year, Kong and Segre published another broad analysis of the human skin microbiome [1] in collaboration with scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), United Kingdom. This new catalog, called the Skin Microbial Genome Collection, is thought to identify about 85 percent of the microorganisms present on healthy skin from 19 body sites. It documents more than 600 bacterial species—including 174 that were discovered during the study—as well as more than 6,900 viruses and some fungi, including three newly discovered species.

Kong’s work has provided compelling evidence that the human immune system plays a role in shaping the skin microbiome. In 2018, she, Segre, and colleagues from the intramural programs of NCI and NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases analyzed skin from eight different sites on 27 people with a rare primary immunodeficiency disease known as DOCK8 deficiency [2].

People with the condition have recurrent infections in the skin, sinuses, and airways, and are susceptible to different cancers. Kong and colleagues found that the skin of people with DOCK8 deficiency contains significantly more DNA viruses (90 percent of the skin microbiome on average) than people without the condition (6 or 7 percent of the skin microbiome).

Other researchers are hoping to leverage features of the microbiome to develop targeted therapies for skin diseases. Richard L. Gallo, a NIAMS grantee at the University of California, San Diego, is currently focused on acne and eczema (also called atopic dermatitis). Acne is associated with certain strains of Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes, formerly called Propionibacterium acnes or P. acnes). Eczema is often associated with Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).

Severe cases of acne and eczema are commonly treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics, which wipe out most of the bacteria, including beneficial species. The goal of microbiome-targeted therapy is to kill only the disease-associated bacteria and avoid increasing the risk that some strains will develop antibiotic resistance.

In 2020, Gallo and colleagues identified a strain of Staphylococcus capitis from healthy human skin (S. capitis E12) that selectively inhibits the growth of C. acnes without negatively impacting other bacteria or human skin cells [3]. S. capitis E12 produces four different toxins that act together to target C. acnes. The research team created an extract of the four toxins and tested it using animal models. In most cases, the extract was more potent at killing C. acnes—including acne-associated strains—than several commonly prescribed antibiotics (erythromycin, tetracycline, and clindamycin). And, unlike antibiotics, the extract does not appear to promote drug-resistance, at least for the 20 generations observed by the researchers.

Eczema is a chronic, relapsing disease characterized by skin that is dry, itchy, inflamed, and prone to infection, including by pathogens such as S. aureus and herpes virus. Although the cause of eczema is unknown, the condition is associated with human genetic mutations, disruption of the skin’s barrier, inflammation-triggering allergens, and imbalances in the skin microbiome.

In 2017, Gallo’s research team discovered that, in healthy human skin, certain strains of Staphylococcus hominis and Staphylococcus epidermis produce potent antimicrobial molecules known as lantibiotics [4]. These beneficial strains are far less common on the skin of people with eczema. The lantibiotics work synergistically with LL-37, an antimicrobial molecule produced by the human immune system, to selectively kill S. aureus, including methicillin-resistant strains (MRSA).

Gallo and his colleagues then examined the safety and therapeutic potential of these beneficial strains isolated from the human skin microbiome. In animal tests, strains of S. hominis and S. epidermis that produce lantibiotics killed S. aureus and blocked production of its toxin.

Gallo’s group has now expanded their work to early studies in humans. In 2021, two independent phase 1 clinical trials [5,6] conducted by Gallo and his colleagues investigated the effects of these strains on people with eczema. These double-blind, placebo-controlled trials involved one-week of topical application of beneficial bacteria to the forearm of adults with S. aureus-positive eczema. The results demonstrated that the treatment was safe, showed a significant decrease in S. aureus, and improved eczema symptoms in most patients. This is encouraging news for those hoping to develop microbiome-targeted therapy for inflammatory skin diseases.

As research on the skin microbiome advances on different fronts, it will provide deeper insight into the multi-faceted microbial communities that are so critical to health and disease. One day, we may even be able to harness the microbiome as a source of therapeutics to alleviate inflammation, promote wound healing, or suppress certain skin cancers.


[1] Integrating cultivation and metagenomics for a multi-kingdom view of skin microbiome diversity and functions. Saheb Kashaf S, Proctor DM, Deming C, Saary P, Hölzer M; NISC Comparative Sequencing Program, Taylor ME, Kong HH, Segre JA, Almeida A, Finn RD. Nat Microbiol. 2022 Jan;7(1):169-179.

[2] Expanded skin virome in DOCK8-deficient patients. Tirosh O, Conlan S, Deming C, Lee-Lin SQ, Huang X; NISC Comparative Sequencing Program, Su HC, Freeman AF, Segre JA, Kong HH. Nat Med. 2018 Dec;24(12):1815-1821.

[3] Identification of a human skin commensal bacterium that selectively kills Cutibacterium acnes. O’Neill AM, Nakatsuji T, Hayachi A, Williams MR, Mills RH, Gonzalez DJ, Gallo RL. J Invest Dermatol. 2020 Aug;140(8):1619-1628.e2.

[4] Antimicrobials from human skin commensal bacteria protect against Staphylococcus aureus and are deficient in atopic dermatitis. Nakatsuji T, Chen TH, Narala S, Chun KA, Two AM, Yun T, Shafiq F, Kotol PF, Bouslimani A, Melnik AV, Latif H, Kim JN, Lockhart A, Artis K, David G, Taylor P, Streib J, Dorrestein PC, Grier A, Gill SR, Zengler K, Hata TR, Leung DY, Gallo RL. Sci Transl Med. 2017 Feb 22;9(378):eaah4680.

[5] Development of a human skin commensal microbe for bacteriotherapy of atopic dermatitis and use in a phase 1 randomized clinical trial. Nakatsuji T, Hata TR, Tong Y, Cheng JY, Shafiq F, Butcher AM, Salem SS, Brinton SL, Rudman Spergel AK, Johnson K, Jepson B, Calatroni A, David G, Ramirez-Gama M, Taylor P, Leung DYM, Gallo RL. Nat Med. 2021 Apr;27(4):700-709.

[6] Use of autologous bacteriotherapy to treat Staphylococcus aureus in patients with atopic dermatitis: A randomized double-blind clinical trial. Nakatsuji T, Gallo RL, Shafiq F, Tong Y, Chun K, Butcher AM, Cheng JY, Hata TR. JAMA Dermatol. 2021 Jun 16;157(8):978-82.


Acne (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases/NIH)

Atopic Dermatitis (NIAMS)

Cutaneous Microbiome and Inflammation Laboratory, Heidi Kong (NIAMS)

Julie Segre (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Gallo Lab (University of California, San Diego)

[Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the cool science that they support and conduct. This is the fifth in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]

Building a Better Bacterial Trap for Sepsis

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Credit: Kandace Gollomp, MD, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA

Spiders spin webs to catch insects for dinner. It turns out certain human immune cells, called neutrophils, do something similar to trap bacteria in people who develop sepsis, an uncontrolled, systemic infection that poses a major challenge in hospitals.

When activated to catch sepsis-causing bacteria or other pathogens, neutrophils rupture and spew sticky, spider-like webs made of DNA and antibacterial proteins. Here in red you see one of these so-called neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) that’s ensnared Staphylococcus aureus (green), a type of bacteria known for causing a range of illnesses from skin infections to pneumonia.

Yet this image, which comes from Kandace Gollomp and Mortimer Poncz at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is much more than a fascinating picture. It demonstrates a potentially promising new way to treat sepsis.

The researchers’ strategy involves adding a protein called platelet factor 4 (PF4), which is released by clot-forming blood platelets, to the NETs. PF4 readily binds to NETs and enhances their capture of bacteria. A modified antibody (white), which is a little hard to see, coats the PF4-bound NET above. This antibody makes the NETs even better at catching and holding onto bacteria. Other immune cells then come in to engulf and clean up the mess.

Until recently, most discussions about NETs assumed they were causing trouble, and therefore revolved around how to prevent or get rid of them while treating sepsis. But such strategies faced a major obstacle. By the time most people are diagnosed with sepsis, large swaths of these NETs have already been spun. In fact, destroying them might do more harm than good by releasing entrapped bacteria and other toxins into the bloodstream.

In a recent study published in the journal Blood, Gollomp’s team proposed flipping the script [1]. Rather than prevent or destroy NETs, why not modify them to work even better to fight sepsis? Their idea: Make NETs even stickier to catch more bacteria. This would lower the number of bacteria and help people recover from sepsis.

Gollomp recalled something lab member Anna Kowalska had noted earlier in unrelated mouse studies. She’d observed that high levels of PF4 were protective in mice with sepsis. Gollomp and her colleagues wondered if the PF4 might also be used to reinforce NETs. Sure enough, Gollomp’s studies showed that PF4 will bind to NETs, causing them to condense and resist break down.

Subsequent studies in mice and with human NETs cast in a synthetic blood vessel suggest that this approach might work. Treatment with PF4 greatly increased the number of bacteria captured by NETs. It also kept NETs intact and holding tightly onto their toxic contents. As a result, mice with sepsis fared better.

Of course, mice are not humans. More study is needed to see if the same strategy can help people with sepsis. For example, it will be important to determine if modified NETs are difficult for the human body to clear. Also, Gollomp thinks this approach might be explored for treating other types of bacterial infections.

Still, the group’s initial findings come as encouraging news for hospital staff and administrators. If all goes well, a future treatment based on this intriguing strategy may one day help to reduce the 270,000 sepsis-related deaths in the U.S. and its estimated more than $24 billion annual price tag for our nation’s hospitals [2, 3].


[1] Fc-modified HIT-like monoclonal antibody as a novel treatment for sepsis. Gollomp K, Sarkar A, Harikumar S, Seeholzer SH, Arepally GM, Hudock K, Rauova L, Kowalska MA, Poncz M. Blood. 2020 Mar 5;135(10):743-754.

[2] Sepsis, Data & Reports, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 14, 2020.

[3] National inpatient hospital costs: The most expensive conditions by payer, 2013: Statistical Brief #204. Torio CM, Moore BJ. Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) Statistical Briefs. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2016 May.


Sepsis (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Kandace Gollomp (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA)

Mortimer Poncz (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

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