February 21, 2019
Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs, may be linked to an abnormal mix of bacteria in the gut, according to new research.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a chronic disease that causes inflammation in connective tissues, such as cartilage and the lining of blood vessels. It affects 1.5 million Americans and is characterized by fatigue, joint pain, and a butterfly rash on the face. There's currently no cure for lupus, which is more common in women and marked by flare-ups in symptoms that at their worst, can severely impair kidney function and even be fatal.
Researchers found that microorganisms or, bacteria, that live in the digestive tract may contribute to the pathogenesis (origination) of lupus nephritis (inflammation of the kidney). Further research into this important finding is needed in the future, the Lupus Foundation of America says.
Imbalances in the gut have been tied to many immune-related diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and some cancers, the study's authors. Their experiments are the first detailed evidence of a link between bacterial imbalances in the gut and potentially life-threatening forms of SLE, Technology Networks explains.
The study, published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, showed that 61 women diagnosed with SLE had roughly five times more gut bacteria known as Ruminococcus gnavus, than 17 women of similar ages and racial backgrounds who did not have the disease and were healthy.
Further, study results showed that lupus “flares,” which can range from instances of skin rash and joint pain to severe kidney dysfunction requiring dialysis, closely tracked major increases in R. gnavus bacterial growth in the gut, alongside the presence in blood samples of immune proteins called antibodies, specifically shaped to attach to the bacteria. The study participants with kidney flares had especially high levels of antibodies to R. gnavus, according to Technology Networks.
There's still a lot left to learn about R. gnavus’s effect on the body, but according to the researchers, the presence of this bacteria — and the fact that it can leak through the gut lining — could be an immune system trigger of the disease, MindBodyGreen reports. According to Dr. Gregg Silverman, an immunologist and the study's senior investigator, "Our study strongly suggests that in some patients bacterial imbalances may be driving lupus and its associated disease flares."
These findings could help doctors, researchers and patients diagnose the autoimmune disease earlier in the future — using blood tests to detect the antibodies that suggest an overgrowth of R. gnavus. And, according to Silverman, one day health professionals might be treating lupus with probiotics, fecal transplants, or diets that prevent R. gnavus from taking over.