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.
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
You might think nutrient-sensing cells in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract would have no connection whatsoever to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But if Diego Bohórquez’s “big idea” is correct, these GI cells, called neuropods, could one day help to provide a direct link into understanding and treating some aspects of autism and other brain disorders.
Bohórquez, a researcher at Duke University, Durham, NC, recently discovered that cells in the intestine, previously known for their hormone-releasing ability, form extensions similar to neurons. He also found that those extensions connect to nerve fibers in the gut, which relay signals to the vagus nerve and onward to the brain. In fact, he found that those signals reach the brain in milliseconds .
Bohórquez has dedicated his lab to studying this direct, high-speed hookup between gut and brain and its impact on nutrient sensing, eating, and other essential behaviors. Now, with support from a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, he will also explore the potential for treating autism and other brain disorders with drugs that act on the gut.
Bohórquez became interested in autism and its possible link to the gut-brain connection after a chance encounter with Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. Dawson mentioned that autism typically affects multiple organ systems.
With further reading, he discovered that kids with autism frequently cope with GI issues, including bowel inflammation, abdominal pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea . They often also show unusual food-related behaviors, such as being extremely picky eaters. But his curiosity was especially piqued by evidence that certain gut microbes can influence abnormal behaviors in mice that model autism.
With his New Innovator Award, Bohórquez will study neuropods and the gut-brain connection in a mouse model of autism. Using the tools of optogenetics, which make it possible to activate cells with light, he’ll also see whether autism-like symptoms in mice can be altered or alleviated by controlling neuropods in the gut. Those symptoms include anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and lack of interest in interacting with other mice. He’ll also explore changes in the animals’ eating habits.
In another line of study, he will take advantage of intestinal tissue samples collected from people with autism. He’ll use those tissues to grow and then examine miniature intestinal “organoids,” looking for possible evidence that those from people with autism are different from others.
For the millions of people now living with autism, no truly effective drug therapies are available to help to manage the condition and its many behavioral and bodily symptoms. Bohórquez hopes one day to change that with drugs that act safely on the gut. In the meantime, he and his fellow “GASTRONAUTS” look forward to making some important and fascinating discoveries in the relatively uncharted territory where the gut meets the brain.
Happy New Year! As we say goodbye to the Teens, let’s take a look back at 2019 and some of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that closed out this remarkable decade.
Each December, the reporters and editors at the journal Science select their breakthrough of the year, and the choice for 2019 is nothing less than spectacular: An international network of radio astronomers published the first image of a black hole, the long-theorized cosmic singularity where gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape . This one resides in a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth! (A light-year equals about 6 trillion miles.)
Though the competition was certainly stiff in 2019, the biomedical sciences were well represented among Science’s “runner-up” breakthroughs. They include three breakthroughs that have received NIH support. Let’s take a look at them:
In a first, drug treats most cases of cystic fibrosis: Last October, two international research teams reported the results from phase 3 clinical trials of the triple drug therapy Trikafta to treat cystic fibrosis (CF). Their data showed Trikafta effectively compensates for the effects of a mutation carried by about 90 percent of people born with CF. Upon reviewing these impressive data, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Trikafta, developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
The approval of Trikafta was a wonderful day for me personally, having co-led the team that isolated the CF gene 30 years ago. A few years later, I wrote a song called “Dare to Dream” imagining that wonderful day when “the story of CF is history.” Though we’ve still got more work to do, we’re getting a lot closer to making that dream come true. Indeed, with the approval of Trikafta, most people with CF have for the first time ever a real chance at managing this genetic disease as a chronic condition over the course of their lives. That’s a tremendous accomplishment considering that few with CF lived beyond their teens as recently as the 1980s.
Such progress has been made possible by decades of work involving a vast number of researchers, many funded by NIH, as well as by more than two decades of visionary and collaborative efforts between the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Aurora Biosciences (now, Vertex) that built upon that fundamental knowledge of the responsible gene and its protein product. Not only did this innovative approach serve to accelerate the development of therapies for CF, it established a model that may inform efforts to develop therapies for other rare genetic diseases.
Hope for Ebola patients, at last: It was just six years ago that news of a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa sounded a global health emergency of the highest order. Ebola virus disease was then recognized as an untreatable, rapidly fatal illness for the majority of those who contracted it. Though international control efforts ultimately contained the spread of the virus in West Africa within about two years, over 28,600 cases had been confirmed leading to more than 11,000 deaths—marking the largest known Ebola outbreak in human history. Most recently, another major outbreak continues to wreak havoc in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violent civil unrest is greatly challenging public health control efforts.
As troubling as this news remains, 2019 brought a needed breakthrough for the millions of people living in areas susceptible to Ebola outbreaks. A randomized clinical trial in the DRC evaluated four different drugs for treating acutely infected individuals, including an antibody against the virus called mAb114, and a cocktail of anti-Ebola antibodies referred to as REGN-EB3. The trial’s preliminary data showed that about 70 percent of the patients who received either mAb114 or the REGN-EB3 antibody cocktail survived, compared with about half of those given either of the other two medicines.
So compelling were these preliminary results that the trial, co-sponsored by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the DRC’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, was halted last August. The results were also promptly made public to help save lives and stem the latest outbreak. All Ebola patients in the DRC treatment centers now are treated with one or the other of these two options. The trial results were recently published.
The NIH-developed mAb114 antibody and the REGN-EB3 cocktail are the first therapeutics to be shown in a scientifically rigorous study to be effective at treating Ebola. This work also demonstrates that ethically sound clinical research can be conducted under difficult conditions in the midst of a disease outbreak. In fact, the halted study was named Pamoja Tulinde Maisha (PALM), which means “together save lives” in Kiswahili.
To top off the life-saving progress in 2019, the FDA just approved the first vaccine for Ebola. Called Ervebo (earlier rVSV-ZEBOV), this single-dose injectable vaccine is a non-infectious version of an animal virus that has been genetically engineered to carry a segment of a gene from the Zaire species of the Ebola virus—the virus responsible for the current DRC outbreak and the West Africa outbreak. Because the vaccine does not contain the whole Zaire virus, it can’t cause Ebola. Results from a large study in Guinea conducted by the WHO indicated that the vaccine offered substantial protection against Ebola virus disease. Ervebo, produced by Merck, has already been given to over 259,000 individuals as part of the response to the DRC outbreak. The NIH has supported numerous clinical trials of the vaccine, including an ongoing study in West Africa.
Microbes combat malnourishment: Researchers discovered a few years ago that abnormal microbial communities, or microbiomes, in the intestine appear to contribute to childhood malnutrition. An NIH-supported research team followed up on this lead with a study of kids in Bangladesh, and it published last July its groundbreaking finding: that foods formulated to repair the “gut microbiome” helped malnourished kids rebuild their health. The researchers were able to identify a network of 15 bacterial species that consistently interact in the gut microbiomes of Bangladeshi children. In this month-long study, this bacterial network helped the researchers characterize a child’s microbiome and/or its relative state of repair.
But a month isn’t long enough to determine how the new foods would help children grow and recover. The researchers are conducting a similar study that is much longer and larger. Globally, malnutrition affects an estimated 238 million children under the age 5, stunting their normal growth, compromising their health, and limiting their mental development. 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.
Measles Resurgent: The staff at Science also listed their less-encouraging 2019 Breakdowns of the Year, and unfortunately the biomedical sciences made the cut with the return of measles in the U.S. Prior to 1963, when the measles vaccine was developed, 3 to 4 million Americans were sickened by measles each year. Each year about 500 children would die from measles, and many more would suffer lifelong complications. As more people were vaccinated, the incidence of measles plummeted. By the year 2000, the disease was even declared eliminated from the U.S.
But, as more parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children, driven by the now debunked claim that vaccines are connected to autism, measles has made a very preventable comeback. Last October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an estimated 1,250 measles cases in the United States at that point in 2019, surpassing the total number of cases reported annually in each of the past 25 years.
The good news is those numbers can be reduced if more people get the vaccine, which has been shown repeatedly in many large and rigorous studies to be safe and effective. The CDC recommends that children should receive their first dose by 12 to 15 months of age and a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. Older people who’ve been vaccinated or have had the measles previously should consider being re-vaccinated, especially if they live in places with low vaccination rates or will be traveling to countries where measles are endemic.
Despite this public health breakdown, 2019 closed out a memorable decade of scientific discovery. The Twenties will build on discoveries made during the Teens and bring us even closer to an era of precision medicine to improve the lives of millions of Americans. So, onward to 2020—and happy New Year!
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 .
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 . 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 . 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 .
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 . 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.
 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).
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
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 . 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.