A toxin produced by a ubiquitous bacteria and common source of food poisoning can damage the same cells that are attacked in in patients with multiple sclerosis and may thus contribute to the disease, according to research presented at the American Society for Microbiology’s Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting today in Washington, DC.
Scientists have long suspected that both environmental factors and genetic factors may contribute to the development or exacerbation of multiple sclerosis, a disorder involving damage to myelin sheath that insulates nerves, including the loss of myelin-producing cells called oligodendrocytes. Last fall, a team of researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, identified a potential environmental factor, Clostridium perfringens type B, in a patient with multiple sclerosis who was having a flare-up of symptoms. This bacterium is commonly found in soil and human and animal intestines, but certain subtypes (B and D) produce a chemical that may become toxic when ingested. The researchers also found that patients with active multiple sclerosis are more likely to have antibodies to the toxin compared with healthy individuals.
In their latest findings, presented by Jennifer R. Linden, PhD, the Weill Cornell team found that the toxin kills oligodendrocytes and binds to many of the sites where inflammation is seen in patients with the disorder. This suggests a possible mechanism by which the toxin might contribute to the disease.
This bacteria is a frequent cause of food poisoning. In fact, the team tested food samples and found that 13.5% of 37 samples were contaminated with C perfringens and that 2.7% of the C perfringens detected produced the toxin.
The findings must be verified in other studies, said Linden, who added that they should not cause concern because good hygiene practices can protect individuals from becoming infected with C perfringens from soil or contaminated food. Additionally, she noted that if this toxin contributes to an increased risk of multiple sclerosis, it is likely that it does so only in a subset of susceptible individuals. In the meantime, she said it would be helpful to researchers probing this link if public health officials genotyped the C perfringens they identify as part of outbreak investigations.