Creative Minds: Giving Bacteria Needles to Fight Intestinal Disease

Cammie Lesser

Cammie Lesser

For Salmonella and many other disease-causing bacteria that find their way into our bodies, infection begins with a poke. That’s because these bad bugs are equipped with a needle-like protein filament that punctures the outer membrane of human cells and then, like a syringe, injects dozens of toxic proteins that help them replicate.

Cammie Lesser at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, and her colleagues are now on a mission to bioengineer strains of bacteria that don’t cause disease to make these same syringes, called type III secretion systems. The goal is to use such “good” bacteria to deliver therapeutic molecules, rather than toxins, to human cells. Their first target is the gastrointestinal tract, where they hope to knock out hard-to-beat bacterial infections or to relieve the chronic inflammation that comes with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

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Creative Minds: New Piece in the Crohn’s Disease Puzzle?

Gwendalyn Randolph

Gwendalyn Randolph

Back in the early 1930s, Burrill Crohn, a gastroenterologist in New York, decided to examine intestinal tissue biopsies from some of his patients who were suffering from severe bowel problems. It turns out that 14 showed signs of severe inflammation and structural damage in the lower part of the small intestine. As Crohn later wrote a medical colleague, “I have discovered, I believe, a new intestinal disease …” [1]

More than eight decades later, the precise cause of this disorder, which is now called Crohn’s disease, remains a mystery. Researchers have uncovered numerous genes, microbes, immunologic abnormalities, and other factors that likely contribute to the condition, estimated to affect hundreds of thousands of Americans and many more worldwide [2]. But none of these discoveries alone appears sufficient to trigger the uncontrolled inflammation and pathology of Crohn’s disease.

Other critical pieces of the Crohn’s puzzle remain to be found, and Gwendalyn Randolph thinks she might have her eyes on one of them. Randolph, an immunologist at Washington University, St. Louis, suspects that Crohn’s disease and other related conditions, collectively called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), stems from changes in vessels that carry nutrients, immune cells, and possibly microbial components away from the intestinal wall. To pursue this promising lead, Rudolph has received a 2015 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.

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Manipulating Microbes: New Toolbox for Better Health?

Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron

Caption: Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron (white) living on mammalian cells in the gut (large pink cells coated in microvilli) and being activated by exogenously added compounds (small green dots) to express specific genes, such as those encoding light-generating luciferase proteins (glowing bacteria).
Credit: Janet Iwasa, Broad Visualization Group, MIT Media Lab

When you think about the cells that make up your body, you probably think about the cells in your skin, blood, heart, and other tissues and organs. But the one-celled microbes that live in and on the human body actually outnumber your own cells by a factor of about 10 to 1. Such microbes are especially abundant in the human gut, where some of them play essential roles in digestion, metabolism, immunity, and maybe even your mood and mental health. You are not just an organism. You are a superorganism!

Now imagine for a moment if the microbes that live inside our guts could be engineered to keep tabs on our health, sounding the alarm if something goes wrong and perhaps even acting to fix the problem. Though that may sound like science fiction, an NIH-funded team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, is already working to realize this goal. Most recently, they’ve developed a toolbox of genetic parts that make it possible to program precisely one of the most common bacteria found in the human gut—an achievement that provides a foundation for engineering our collection of microbes, or microbiome, in ways that may treat or prevent disease.

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