Upfront

Gut check

People with ulcerative colitis — a condition marked by painful inflammation in the colon — could be missing microbes that are key for turning food into crucial substances the body needs, Stanford Medicine researchers found. 

Illustration by David Plunkert

People with ulcerative colitis — a condition marked by painful inflammation in the colon — could be missing microbes that are key for turning food into crucial substances the body needs, Stanford Medicine researchers found.

There is no cure for ulcerative colitis, and the cause is unknown. But Stanford research described in a Feb. 25 paper in Cell Host & Microbe has tied the condition to patients having insufficient amounts of substances called secondary bile acids, which are anti-inflammatory metabolites produced only by gut-dwelling bacteria.

Aida Habtezion, MD, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology, and senior author of the paper, said researchers hope the finding leads to “being able to treat it with a naturally produced metabolite that’s already present in high amounts in a healthy gut.”

Researchers compared two groups of patients — one with ulcerative colitis, the other with a noninflammatory condition of the colon — who had undergone an identical corrective surgical procedure.

They discovered that a particular family of bacteria, Ruminococcaceae, was depleted in patients with ulcerative colitis. These patients also were deficient in secondary bile acids, the scientists report.

The discoveries raise the prospect that supplementing patients with those missing metabolites — or perhaps someday restoring the gut-dwelling bacteria that produce them — could effectively treat intestinal inflammation in these patients and perhaps those with a related condition called Crohn’s disease, Habtezion said.

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