Saturday, January 22, 2011

Microbiome and Disease: Experimentation, Gulf War Syndrome, and Mycoplasma

Humans are host to a large number of bacteria which may influence health and disease. Whether or not any given microorganism, such as E coli, becomes pathogenic is not understood. What is becoming increasingly clear is that, in addition to exogenous influences such as diet and exercise, endogenous factors such as bacteria (and genetics!) are crucial determinants of human health. Carl Zimmer, science writer, has proclaimed: "I, for one, welcome our microbial overlords!" after reviewing recent research establishing that certain bacteria can lead to obesity. His famous New York Times fecal transplant article is here.

In the absence of scientific certainty, groups of concerned citizens have begun moving forward, experimenting with antibiotics and probiotics to try to nudge the population dynamics of their microbiome toward healthier states. This emerging field, combined with the failure of the medical community to communicate and collaborate with patients who are sick and aren't being helped by currently available diagnosis or treatment has created fertile ground for web-based DIY experimentation. The community of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers in particular have latched onto research examining possible links between a tiny gram-negative bacterium called Mycoplasma fermentans and Gulf War Syndrome. The bacteria, which can apparently be a member of normal human microbial flora, is implicated in the vague symptoms of GWS, and by extension, CFS. A definitive book on GWS found little evidence to suggest such a link, but the initiator the research, Dr. Nicholson, has forged ahead nonetheless, starting a nonprofit research lab to investigate and link between Mycoplasma fermentans and health problems.

It is unfortunate that so much of the information available online is anecdotal. If these types of alternative medical practices could keep better data it may be possible to scientifically evaluate them. However, in the absence of peer-reviewed double blind trials, it appears many people are simply grasping for any treatment that offers hope, no matter how unsupported. Indeed, the scientific jury is still out, and this developing field may see fringe transformed into mainstream.

Research into M. fermentans is certainly controversial, but continuing: see, for example:

Kawahito et al. Mycoplasma fermentans glycolipid-antigen as a pathogen of rheumatoid arthritis. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. 2008;369(2):561-566.

No comments: