Exploring the impact of gut bacteria on gut health

Why do certain gastrointestinal bacteria cause disease in some people but not others? What are the underlying mechanisms responsible for this? These questions are now being addressed by a new Emmy Noether Independent Junior Research Group at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin. Findings from this research should help to improve the targeting of measures aimed at preventing gastrointestinal diseases. The research group is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), which awarded more than €1.6 million in funding for a period of six years.

The human gastrointestinal tract is colonized by large numbers of bacteria, most of which are harmless and have a beneficial effect on normal body functions. Certain bacteria, however, can become dangerous and cause disease - but not in everybody. A new Emmy-Noether Independent Junior Research Group - led by Dr. Michael Sigal of Charité's Medical Department, Division of Hepatology and Gastroenterology on Campus Charité Mitte - will set out to gain a better understanding of the underlying processes.

In a recent study, conducted in conjunction with an international group of researchers, Dr. Sigal was able to demonstrate that gastric stem cells are capable of protecting themselves against damage by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, a major risk factor for gastric cancer.

Outlining the project's main areas of focus, Dr Sigal says:

We will now explore these mechanisms in greater detail, looking at both the stomach and the large intestine. We will be shining a light on interactions between stem cells and specific bacteria which colonize the gastrointestinal tract and have the potential to cause disease. For instance, we will be studying bacteria that reside in the large bowel, and which have been linked to both chronic inflammatory bowel disease and malignant cancers."

The researchers will conduct studies using a range of different methods, including the analysis of patient samples, the use of complex cell and stem cell cultures, and experimental animal models. The visualization of bacteria within the gastrointestinal tract will also play a central role. For this task, the researchers will be using modern, high-resolution microscopes.

"We hope that our research will reveal the conditions under which certain resident gut microbes are able to cause damage. This will allow us to develop strategies aimed at preventing symptoms and restoring gut health," explains Dr. Sigal. The gastroenterologist will also continue to develop clinical services for chronic stomach and bowel diseases, in order to ensure research optimally dovetails with patient care.

The DFG's Emmy Noether program supports outstanding early career researchers, enabling them to qualify for appointment as a university professor by leading an independent junior research group.

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