Immune system’s balancing act keeps bowel disease in check

Immune system’s balancing act keeps bowel disease in check

Illuminate newsletter index page, December 2018
December 2018

(L-R) Dr Alan Yu and Associate Professor Seth Masters.

Institute researchers have uncovered clues in the immune system that reveal how the balance of ‘good’ gut bacteria is maintained. The information could help in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

The study, led by Associate Professor Seth Masters, Dr Tracy Putoczki and Dr Alan Yu, along with collaborators at University of Melbourne’s Bio21 Institute and QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Queensland, showed that the increased presence of a protein responsible for sensing infection – called NLRP1 – meant there were fewer good bacteria and anti-inflammatory molecules in the gut, leading to higher levels of inflammation and an increased risk of IBD.

Dampening inflammation

Associate Professor Masters said while it was known that the immune system could defend the gut from bad bacteria, its role in maintaining ‘good’ bacteria wasn’t appreciated until now.

“We have uncovered the immune system’s ability to regulate good gut bacteria through the immune sensor NLRP1. Good bacteria are important because they help to produce butyrate – a molecule that dampens inflammation in the body. So understanding how the balance of good bacteria is maintained could one day help to inform preventions and treatments for inflammatory diseases like IBD,” he said.

“While we don’t know exactly what the genetic, microbial or environmental triggers for NLRP1 are, it is clear that faulty regulation of NLRP1 is an underlying cause of IBD.”

A better understanding of IBD could improve treatment options and the quality of life for patients, who often experience chronic and debilitating symptoms.

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