Variant of common soil-based pathogen found for the first time in a patient with MS
A research team from Weill Cornell Medical College and The Rockefeller University has identified a bacterium it believes may trigger multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, debilitating disorder that damages myelin forming cells in the brain and spinal cord.
Their study, published in PLoS ONE, is the first to identify the bacterium, Clostridium (C.) perfringens type B, in humans.
The scientists say their study is small and must be expanded before a definitive connection between the pathogen and MS can be made, but they also say their findings are so intriguing that they have already begun to work on new treatments for the disease.
"This bacterium produces a toxin that we normally think humans never encounter. That we identified this bacterium in a human is important enough, but the fact that it is present in MS patients is truly significant because the toxin targets the exact tissues damaged during the acute MS disease process," say the study's first author, K. Rashid Rumah, an MD/PhD student at Weill Cornell Medical College, and the study's senior investigator, Dr. Timothy Vartanian, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College and director of the Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
"While it is clear that new MS disease activity requires an environmental trigger, the identity of this trigger has eluded the MS scientific community for decades," Dr. Vartanian says. "Work is underway to test our hypothesis that the environmental trigger for MS lays within the microbiome, the ecosystem of bacteria that populates the gastrointestinal tract and other body habitats of MS patients."
Connection to MS in grazing animals
The study describes discovery of C. perfringens type B in a 21-year-old woman who was experiencing a flare-up of her MS.
The woman was part of the Harboring the Initial Trigger for MS (HITMS) observational trial launched by Dr. Vartanian and K. Rashid Rumah, who works both with Dr. Vartanian and with co-author Dr. Vincent Fischetti at The Rockefeller University.
C. perfringens, found in soil, is one of the most common bacteria in the world. It is divided into five types. C. perfringens type A is commonly found in the human gastrointestinal tract and is believed to be largely harmless.
C. perfringens types B and D carry a gene (epsilon toxin) that emits a protoxin -- a non-active precursor form of the toxin -- which is turned into the potent "epsilon" toxin within the intestines of grazing animals. The epsilon toxin travels through the blood to the brain, where it damages brain blood vessels and myelin, the insulation protecting neurons, resulting in MS-like symptoms in the animals.
While the D subtype has only been found in two people, based on prior studies by other investigators, the B subtype had never been found in humans.
Nevertheless, Rumah and the research team set out to see if subtypes B or D exist in humans and if they are associated with MS. They tested banked blood and spinal fluid from both MS patients and healthy controls for antibody reactivity to the epsilon toxin. Investigators found that levels of epsilon toxin antibodies in MS patients were 10 times higher than in the healthy controls -- the blood of only one out of 100 control participants showed an immune reaction to the toxin.
The team also examined stool samples from both MS patients and healthy controls enrolled in the HITMS clinical study, and found that 52 percent of healthy controls carried the A subtype compared to 23 percent of MS patients. "This is important because it is believed that the type A bacterium competes with the other subtypes for resources, so that makes it potentially protective against being colonized by epsilon toxin secreting subtypes and developing MS," say Rumah and Vartanian.