A new study suggests that certain gut microbes could be indicators of future asthma risk in babies. It's not clear that the microbes prevent asthma, per-say, so it's a bit early to start investing in baby probiotics. But the study is just the latest indication that bacteria could play a key role in keeping young lungs healthy.
According to a study published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, babies with high risk for asthma tend to have lower levels of four particular species of bacteria --Faecalibacterium, Lachnospira, Veillonella and Rothia (FLVR) -- in their stool samples at three months old. As they grow up, their microbes level out with their less-at-risk counterparts; so the study suggests that early intervention of the microbial variety could be key to keeping kids breathing easy.
We're all full of -- and covered in -- a unique suite of bacteria. As researchers have identified more and more of the species that help us rather than hurt us, many have begun to suggest that bacterial therapies -- particularly those focused on changing bacteria populations in the gut -- could cure a whole host of ailments.
Fecal Matter Transplants, which introduce the fecal bacteria of healthy patients into the guts of those with chronic and life-threatening gastric diseases, have already shown promise. But even the treatment of a gut ailment with gut bacteria is only really proven to work in the case of one particular illness. It would be a big leap to expect therapy of the gut to treat lung disease just yet.
“I want to emphasize that we’re not ready for that yet,” study co-author Stuart Turvey, a pediatric immunologist at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital, told the Associated Press. But a “vision for the future would be to prevent this disease.”
Furthermore, it's not clear that the bacteria in question actually prevent asthma. Of the 22 infants considered at risk for developing asthma in the study out of a total 319 (determined by their responses to allergy tests and their tendency to wheeze) only eight have actually been diagnosed with the disease. If the absence of these bacteria truly caused asthma, we'd expect more of the children to develop lung problems.
But that doesn't mean such a treatment scheme is impossible. In fact, the Verge reports, the researchers have already filed a patent on the unique FLVR combination of microbes. If any company wants to develop a therapy or diagnostic test based on the presence of these four bacteria in the human gut, they'll have to license the combination through the University of British Columbia. Preliminary tests have already shown promise in mice.
For now, there's just one big take-away for the public: Don't be careless with antibiotic use, especially in infants. Insisting on antibiotics for a cold or flu could end up damaging the delicate -- and perhaps incredibly important -- balance of microbes in baby's gut.