"Fungi" is not exactly a pretty word to bring up in the discussion of digestive health, but fungi are a crucial subject of research if doctors want to better understand the causes of inflammatory bowel disease and other conditions.
At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, researchers have identified and characterized a vast number of fungi inhabiting the large intestine.
The medical center's Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute studied fungi in an animal model of IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease), with the results recently published in an issue of Science.
As a Cedars-Sinai media release explains, the digestive tract hosts an estimated 100 trillion bacteria, with the combination of bacteria, viruses and fungi outnumbering human cells.
Some microbes aid digestion, produce nutrients or suppress harmful microbes. But other microbes contribute to obesity and play a role in the two major inflammatory bowel diseases, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
David Underhill, Ph.D., who led the study, said it has long been known that fungi reside in the gut. “But we’re among the first to investigate what types, how many, and whether they’re important in disease.
“We were truly stunned to see just how common fungi are, identifying more than 100 different types,” Underhill said, adding that the researchers were able to find links to digestive disorders when focusing on a protein called Dectin-1.
Dectin-1 is produced by white blood cells and is used by the immune system to detect and kill fungi. It appears that the protein goes to work on the fungi causing inflammation in the gut.
Researchers say the finding is relevant to the study of ulcerative colitis, a form of IBD characterized by inflammation and ulcers in the top layers of the large intestine's lining.
Common symptoms of ulcerative colitis include abdominal pain, diarrhea, bleeding, fatigue, weight loss and loss of appetite.
An estimated 1.4 million Americans have some form of IBD, a chronic digestive disorder that can involve rigorous medical therapies and lifestyle changes to bring it under control.
So not surprisingly, microbes in the human gut are a popular topic of study these days.
For instance, there is the Microbiome Initiative, a joint project of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University and the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.
The initiative relies on the latest generation of DNA sequencing technology and sophisticated computational methods to study the complex role of microbial communities in the intestine, the CCFA says.
Are gut microbes wholly or partially responsible for digestive diseases? This project and others might offer answers.
"Current Research Studies." Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. Web. 27 June 2012.
"Cedars-Sinai researchers explore role of fungus in digestive disorders." Cedars-Sinai news release. Web. 27 June 2012.
Reviewed June 28, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith