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Out of Balance: Gut Bacterial Makeup May Exacerbate Pain in Sickle Cell Disease

Study suggests imbalance in gut bacteria levels contributes to occlusion events, hospitalizations

Washington (November 7, 2017)—An overabundance of the bacteria Veillonella in the digestive tract may increase pain in patients with sickle cell disease (SCD). Researchers from Howard University will present their findings today at the American Physiological Society’s Physiological and Pathophysiological Consequences of Sickle Cell Disease conference in Washington, D.C.

Previous studies have reported that Veillonella, a bacterium that normally lives in the mouth and gut, forms a film in the gastrointestinal tract. Streptococcus bacteria may attach themselves to this film, making them stronger and more virulent. Streptococcus is responsible for diseases such as strep throat, meningitis and bacterial pneumonia.

The researchers studied fecal DNA of people with SCD and found they had higher levels of Veillonella in the gut than a control group of healthy people did. In addition, all of the SCD patients in the trial had been hospitalized in the previous year—some multiple times—for vaso-occlusive crisis (VOC), a severe pain event common in SCD. VOC occurs when the misshapen, sickled red blood cells block blood flow in the blood vessels. Overgrowth of Veillonella “might exacerbate pain crises primarily due to blood vessels occlusion,” the research team wrote. Red blood cells might attach to the film of Veillonella and cause increased pain, explained Hassan Brim, PhD, first author of the study. More research is needed to determine how to best rebalance the bacteria in the digestive tract and potentially reduce symptoms, Brim noted.

Hassan Brim, PhD, will present “Gut microbiome analysis reveals major dysbiosis in sickle cell disease patients with a prevalence of Veillonella strains” as part of the “Cell Therapy” symposium on Tuesday, November 7, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in the Embassy Suites D.C. Convention Center Hotel.

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: The Physiological and Pathophysiological Consequences of Sickle Cell Disease conference will be held in Washington, D.C., November 6–8, 2017. Read the full program. To schedule an interview with the conference organizers or presenters, contact the APS Communications Office or call 301-634-7209. Find more research highlights in the APS Press Room.

Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. Established in 1887, the American Physiological Society (APS) was the first U.S. society in the biomedical sciences field. The Society represents more than 10,500 members and publishes 15 peer-reviewed journals with a worldwide readership.