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Gut bacteria could predict asthma in kids.


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This could lead to much earlier detection of high risk for asthma in babies.

Dirty diapers are the unlikeliest of crystal balls, but they could hold the answer to why some children develop asthma. Just four types of gut bacteria in the stool seem to make all the difference, predicting who will get the disease and who won’t, researchers say. The finding could help identify children at high risk of asthma, and it could also lead to the development of probiotic mixtures that prevent the disease.

The new study “puts a lot of epidemiological observations from over the years into a new perspective,” says asthma researcher Marsha Wills-Karp of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, who was not involved in the latest work.

A growing body of research has led to a new appreciation over the last decade for how the microbiome—the collection of bacteria and viruses that live in the human body—shapes people’s health. And studies have hinted that differences between young babies’ microbiomes, caused by birth methods, diet, environment, and antibiotic exposure, might affect their chances of developing diseases such as asthma and allergies.

“There are all these smoking guns to indicate that the microbiota may be involved [in asthma], but there were no experiments to prove it,” says microbiologist Brett Finlay of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, in Canada, a senior author on the paper.

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The discovery has one immediate application: identifying children with a high risk of asthma in their first 100 days of life, says pediatrician Stuart Turvey of UBC Vancouver, a co-author on the paper. “Those children could be followed or treated more quickly if they end up with asthma,” he adds. But it also suggests that providing this group with the unique mixture of four bacteria—a combination not found in current commercial probiotics—could prevent the onset of asthma.

But developing therapeutics will be harder than just mixing the microbes together into pill form, Wills-Karp says, because babies already have guts that are teeming with other bacteria. These “first colonists” may prevent new strains from easily taking over. And another study has suggested different bacteria as protective. “It’s not clear right now that there are ways to induce the growth of these particular bacteria in kids,” she says. “But it certainly starts to open the door toward that possibility.”

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