The sugar sialic acid, which is a component of the protective intestinal mucus layer and was recently discovered by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and BC Children’s Hospital, feeds disease-causing bacteria in the gut.
The findings point to a possible therapeutic target for bacterial infections of the intestines as well as a number of chronic conditions associated to gut flora, such as short bowel syndrome, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and irritable bowel syndrome.
Dr. Bruce Vallance, a professor in the department of pediatrics at UBC and investigator at BC Children’s Hospital, said, “Bacteria need to find a place in our intestines to take hold, establish and expand, and then they need to overcome all the different defenses that normally protect our gut. In the future, we can potentially target this sugar, or how pathogens sense it, to prevent clinically important disease.”
Children are becoming increasingly prone to gut bacterial infections and inflammatory disorders like IBD due to their undeveloped immune systems. Qiaochu Liang, a UBC graduate student who is the lead author on the study, and Dr. Hongbing Yu, a research associate at UBC, worked with Dr. Vallance to investigate the mechanisms underlying the persistence and growth of these bacterial infections in human intestines.
Citrobacter rodentium, a mouse intestinal pathogen used to simulate infections with human E. coli, was the subject of the investigation. The scientists found that the bacteria had genes involved in consuming sialic acid, and that the removal of these genes impairs the growth of the bacteria.
Further research showed that the bacteria developed two unique virulence proteins after ingesting the sugars, which enable the germs to pass through the intestinal mucus layer and adhere to the subsurface epithelial cells.
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