Systemic Sclerosis Patients Found To Have a Unique Colon Microbiota

Patrícia Silva, PhD avatar

by Patrícia Silva, PhD |

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A study recently presented at the European League Against Rheumatism Annual Congress (EULAR 2015) in Rome, Italy, June 10-13 revealed that individuals with systemic sclerosis have a unique bacterial signature in their colon that is different from healthy individuals.

Systemic sclerosis, also known as scleroderma, is a rare, chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks healthy tissues resulting in a hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues due to excessive collagen deposition. The disease usually affects the skin, but it can also affect internal organs such as the lungs, heart, blood vessels, kidneys and the digestive tract. In fact, up to 90% of the systemic sclerosis patients are estimated to suffer from gastrointestinal tract complications, namely difficulties in swallowing, reflux, feeling bloated or full, constipation, diarrhea and fecal incontinence.

“Although gastrointestinal tract dysfunction is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in patients, its etiology has always remained elusive,” said the study investigator Dr. Elizabeth Volkmann from David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in a news release.

The team analyzed 17 systemic sclerosis patients who underwent colonoscopy and scored them in terms of distention/bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fecal incontinence, emotional wellbeing and social functioning. The microbiota (microbial community) composition in both the first part of the large intestine (cecum) and the last part of the large intestine (sigmoid) of these patients was compared with the microbiota of healthy individuals.

Researchers found that there were significant differences in microbiota between systemic sclerosis patients and healthy individuals, with patients having a marked reduction in specific bacteria known to supply essential nutrients (commensal bacteria like Bacteroides and Faecalibacterium), and an increase in pathogenic bacteria (Enterobacteriales and Fusobacterium).

The team concluded that patients with systemic sclerosis have an imbalance in their colon microbiota. They suggest that alterations in the gut may contribute to the disease symptoms, and could be potentially used in the diagnosis of systemic sclerosis as well as in the development of alternative therapeutic strategies.

“By identifying significant differences in bacteria – both in type and quantity – seen in the colons of healthy individuals and those with SSc [systemic sclerosis], we hope to have pinpointed the exact changes in body ecology that may contribute to the clinical symptoms of this disease. We believe investigating this specific microbial signature further has the potential to lead to better diagnostic tools and treatment for a truly debilitating condition,” concluded Dr. Volkmann.