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Gut Microbes Could Soon Diagnose and Explain The Cause of IBS and IBD

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IBD and IBS

(Credit: sedat seven/shutterstock)

Doctors have long scratched their heads over the causes and cures for two common diseases of the digestive system: IBS and IBD. But research out today in Science Translational Medicine takes a leap forward in explaining these conditions, thanks to a major undertaking to sequence the gut microbiomes of almost 2,000 people.

Difference Between IBS and IBD

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is thought to affect as much as 20 percent of the world’s population, while its cousin, Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD, is less common (fewer than 1 percent of the population) but more severe. The two have similar symptoms, but because one is characterized by its namesake inflammation (IBD) and the other isn’t (IBS), their treatments are very different.

When a patient reports abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, doctors conduct invasive tests like blood samples and colonoscopies to look for signs of inflammation. If they find it, the patient has IBD, and treatments are aimed at reducing that inflammation. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are both types of IBD.

But if doctors find nothing? That’s IBS. IBS is a bit of a catch-all diagnosis for when there’s no inflammation — and really no other abnormalities that might explain a patient’s symptoms. Current IBS treatments revolve around alleviating symptoms and hoping for the best.

Although scientists recently identified a possible genetic trigger of IBD in mice, the root causes of both diseases are currently unknown.

Poop Microbes Reflect Colon Microbes

Mounting evidence shows that microbes play a role in gut health, and previous research has showed that IBS and IBD patients have different microbiota than healthy people. That’s why a research team in the Netherlands wondered how the two would compare to each other, and if they could be used for diagnosis.

“We thought, let’s see if the microbiome, or gut composition, can become a biomarker so we can design new tests in order to distinguish these two diagnoses,” says Arnau Vich Vila, computational biologist at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands.

“We would reduce the number of colonoscopies; saving time, saving money and also improving the diagnosis so that the patient doesn’t have to go through this kind of procedure,” says Vich Vila.

The team set about sequencing the microbiomes from almost 1,800 people: 350 with IBD, 410 with IBS, and 1,000 healthy people as a comparison. But to do this, they needed to collect 1,800 microbiomes. That’s a lot of poop.

They found their participants through three different established banks of volunteers with well-established medical information for use in population studies. If you’ve ever peed in a cup at the doctor’s office, you can use your imagination to figure out how fecal samples are collected. But as an added challenge, fecal samples can’t be kept at room temperature, because that would allow certain bacteria to grow, interfering with the study results.

“So we asked all of them to collect the sample at home, put it in the freezer, and then we were driving around the Netherlands to pick up these samples,” says Vich Vila.

They used a genetic tool called shotgun metagenomic sequencing to sequence the DNA of the bacteria living in each sample, a common technique used to identify bacteria species in big samples. But they didn’t just identify the species – they looked at how abundant each was, how fast each grew, and what functions each performs in the gut.

upset stomach IBD and IBS symptoms

(Credit: Emily Frost/shutterstock)

IBD Bacteria, Different from IBS Bacteria

They found that people with IBD and IBS had substantial overlap in which microbes they had in their guts, and both were different than their healthy peers. And Vich Vila says the group was surprised to find such an overlap in the IBS and IBD microbes, because of how fundamentally different the two diseases are.

But the researchers also found consistent microbial differences between IBS and IBD patients, suggesting microbiome analysis could soon be used to diagnose IBS and IBD – and could start to explain the differences in the conditions.

For instance, both IBS and IBD patients had reduced numbers of some known beneficial gut bacteria, while only patients with Crohn’s disease had increases in bacteria like Escherichia, known to invade the gut’s mucus lining and cause problems (you know this one from the “E” in E. coli.) Likewise, there were certain bacteria that only the IBS patients had in increased amounts.

The microbiomes were different in other ways, too. The genetic diversity within individual bacteria species was sometimes different, as were the growth rates. Patients with IBS and IBD also had much more virulent bacteria than people with healthy guts – bacteria that do things like evade or suppress their host’s immune system. And patients with Crohn’s, specifically, had more bacteria that had antibiotic resistance genes than any of the other groups.

They also compared the diagnostic abilities of their new microbiome data to that of a currently used diagnostic test for IBD: whether a patient’s stool contains a biomarker of inflammation called calprotectin. Their microbiome test did better at predicting whether a patient had IBS or IBD than did the old test.

What Bacteria Do In Your Gut

What a bacterium does is programmed in its DNA just like any other living organism. So the researchers also wanted to know if their huge genomic dataset could tell us not just which bacteria are in which person’s gut, but what they are up to – especially if what they’re up to is making people sick. Figuring this out would really blow open the possibilities for understanding these two rather mysterious conditions.

They found many functional changes between the IBS, IBD, and healthy patients. For instance, in patients with Crohn’s disease, there were more bacteria breaking down sugars and fewer kickstarting fermentation. That causes the inflammation. Meanwhile, in patients with IBS, there were more bacteria than normal focused on fermentation and breaking down carbs.

This latter point caught the attention of William Chey, University of Michigan professor and practicing IBS specialist, who was not involved in this study. “It’s something I’ve been wondering about for quite a while,” says Chey, explaining that IBS patients often complain of bloating, and bloating is often caused by fermentation. “A question’s always been, could the microbiome provide an explanation for that?”

“So what they found – alterations in the microbiome which would explain increased levels of fermentation or altered fermentation in IBS patients – is really interesting,” says Chey.

Gut Solutions For The Future?

Valerie Collij, co-lead on the study, researches and practices medicine at University Medical Center Groningen. “As a clinician, I would say that this is the base for future treatments,” she says. “We can use this information to get dietary interventions, or pro- and prebiotics, or even fecal transplants that are based on the gut microbiome composition. That would be great. But we are nowhere near there, yet, I would say.”

“But what we are really close to now is using microbiota as a diagnostic tool,” adds Vich Vila.

Chey is excited about where these findings could lead IBS and IBD research in the future. “It’s really been the Holy Grail, looking for the characteristics of the microbiomes that might be linked to the pathology that we see in the clinic,” he says.

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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