Professor Susan Wong explains gut microbiota – by Emily Burns
Professor Susan Wong, based at Cardiff University, researches the mechanisms behind why people develop Type 1 diabetes. She also investigates the role of gut microbiota in Type 1 diabetes. I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Wong present the latest research into gut microbiota at the Diabetes UK Professional Conference, and I caught up with her afterwards to find out more.
We keep hearing about gut bacteria – what’s the connection to Type 1 diabetes?
“It’s clear that Type 1 diabetes occurs because of an interaction between a genetic predisposition to getting Type 1 diabetes and something in the environment. For a long time, the environmental parts of why people might get Type 1 diabetes were not clearly understood. We thought about infections, breastfeeding, diet – and there are many components that might be involved in this environmental risk.
Something that could incorporate all of those components is the fact that we have a very large number of bacteria that live inside us, particularly in the gut. We know that, normally, those bacteria live very well with us. They perform important functions, such as helping the immune system to develop, producing substances that help our metabolism, and they may ward off infections inside the gut.
We know that many things can affect those bacteria, and if you change the composition of the bacteria, it could have particular effects on the immune system. It could help the immune system to regulate those ‘bad’ immune cells that attack the pancreas in Type 1 diabetes, or they could do the opposite, and stimulate the ‘bad’ cells to go and attack.
So we have a lot of research to do, to try and find out exactly what these bacteria do. If we fully understand what they do, it’s possible that they could be targeted by therapies in the future. We know that they’re very sensitive to changes in the environment and diet, they may be sensitive to antibiotics, and they may also be sensitive to probiotics.
At the moment, we don’t know how best to target them. It’s important that we now do some trials, to see whether altering the bacteria in the gut could make a difference to whether people get diabetes or not.”
I understand that you treat people with Type 1 diabetes and work as a basic scientist – what’s that?
“A basic scientist is someone who has been trained and has a science degree, who carries out work in the lab. Their work is very important, because we need to understand the fundamental aspects of biochemistry and physiology, in order to understand what happens when we have health – and conversely – when we get disease.
If we don’t do those studies, understanding the basics of why things happen and what actually makes us work, then we won’t really get to the bottom of what goes wrong and how we might make it better.
Basic scientist will be working to understand all of those processes, and it’s only then that we can begin to develop therapies and treatments that will lead us towards the prevention – and in the future, hopefully the cure – of Type 1 diabetes.”
Professor Wong explains more about her research, probiotics and clinical trials…
You can find out more about Professor Wong’s research on her website.