What is Fungus Doing in Your Body?

Gut fungus may play role in inflammatory bowel disease

(RxWiki News) You probably don't think too deeply about what's in your gut at any given moment. But it's home to a wild and diverse community of microbes, and now - fungi.

That's right, fungus in your body. Researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have found fungi in the human intestinal tract, and they suspect that it may play a role in inflammatory diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.

"Ask your doctor what treatment is right for your condition."

Dr. David Underhill, associate professor and director of the Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine, led the study. “It’s long been recognized that fungi must also exist in the gut, but we’re among the first to investigate what types, how many, and whether they’re important in disease,” he said in a press release.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term for a range of diseases, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. While these chronic illnesses are associated with the digestive tract, they are autoimmune diseases and are characterized by inflammation in the gut.

Almost one and a half million Americans have IBD. Symptoms vary, and they include abdominal pain, diarrhea, bleeding, tiredness, weight loss and loss of appetite. Patients go through periods of “flare ups” when they experience more severe symptoms.

Scientists don't know what causes Crohn's and other IBDs. But there's growing evidence that communities of microbial life have something to do with it.

It's estimated that there are more bacteria residing in the gut than there are human cells in the body. They serve an important purpose – some help digest food and perform other functions necessary to life.

But some bacteria – or maybe fungi – are suspected to play contributing roles in the development of IBD. Several studies had suggested fungi had a presence in the gut, but it wasn't known whether or not they had an influence on disease.

Using an animal model, the researchers found more than 100 different types of fungi.

They looked specifically at a protein called Dectin-1, which is special in that it “recognizes” fungi. It's produced by white blood cells, the key component of the immune system.

The researchers induced colitis in mice. They saw that Dectin-1 was responsible for protecting against inflammation that is caused by fungus. When the mice were deficient in the protein – meaning they had less than normal bodies – they were more susceptible to colitis.

An understanding of how fungus affects the gut and disease could help lead to better treatments and drugs for IBD, especially for patients who have Dectin-1 deficiencies.

The study, published in the journal Science, concluded, “Overall, the idea that fungi are present in the gut and that they interact strongly with the immune system will fundamentally alter how we think about the gut microflora and inflammatory bowel diseases.”

The study was published in June 2012.

Review Date: 
June 7, 2012