Tuesday, November 20, 2012

XVII Seminar on Amoebiasis, Mérida, Mexico, March 2013


The XVII Seminar on Amebiasis will take place in Mérida, México, March 1-5, 2013. For futher information, please go here.

(Artwork by Jan Voss ("Parasites"))

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Amelioration of Colitis by Parasites - or "An Elliott & Weinstock Special"

Common parasites such as Blastocystis and Dientamoeba fragilis are often incriminated of causing chronic or intermittent diarrhoea or other intestinal symptoms despite the absence of compelling evidence. What most of us probably fail to realise is that parasites may actually prevent and ameliorate intestinal illness, including inflammatory bowel disease, other types of colitis, and other types of autoimmune diseases.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes the two most common manifestations ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease and affects more than 2 million people in North America and Europe. They are chronic inflammatory conditions of the gut that usually begin when people are in the second to third decade of life. Although the causes of these inflammatory diseases remain unknown, they are assumed to result from inappropriately aggressive mucosal (i.e. related to our intestinal lining) immune responses to elements or substances in our intestine. IBD is treated with immuno-suppresive drugs.

IBD has emerged primarily in the Western world along with a significant reduction in cases of intestinal helminthiasis due to clean food and water, improved hygiene and sanitation, and the development and use of antibiotics. In Denmark, helminthic infections due to previously common parasitic worms such as Ascaris (roundworm) are now at the point of being almost extinct in the indigenous population.

The hygiene hypothesis proposes that a causal link exists between the adoption of modern hygiene and the increase in the prevalence of immune dysfunctions. The extent of perinatal maturation of the immune system may play a crucial role in terms of our likelihood of developing allergic and autoimmune diseases later in life. The maturation process includes establishment of tolerance to food and harmless microorganisms, but also defence mechanisms against pathogens. If our environment is "too clean", we may fail to give our immune system the best possible opportunity to mature and differentiate appropriately. A robust immune response will protect us from recurrent infections, but if misdirected, it can cause disease.

Part of our immune system is the "adaptive immune system" -  or our "immunologic memory" - made up by cells such as lymphocytes (T- and B-cells), macrophages, dendritic cells, etc. plus antibodies and hormone-like substances (eg. cytokines) that are secreted to activate/inactivate or up- and down-regulate these cells. Our immune systems has to be able to recognise a plethora of foreign material such as bacteria, viruses and parasites, and to distinguish "self" from "non-self". IBD may be caused by mal-functions in our own immune system, and so may a lot of other diseases, diseases that we call "autoimmune diseases", and which include coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.

10,000 years ago, humans were infected by a variety of species of worms that are common in some parts of the world even today and hence humans and parasites have co-evolved over thousands of years. Importantly, most wild animals in their natural habitat are carriers of many types of parasites. A "clever" parasite does little harm to its host. Parasites have developed mechanisms that enable them to survive in their hosts, and also, the human immune system has developed a way to adapt to these common intruders.

Egg of Trichuris trichiura. Courtesy of Dr Marianne Lebbad.
How can one explain the amelioration of symptoms due to colitis by the presence of intestinal nematodes? Helminths appear to induce immune host regulatory cells that suppress inflammation, and helminth infections are strong inducers of immune regulatory circuits. The immune system changes in response to helminth colonisation and factors secreted by helminths that can influence immune cell function. It is likely that several immune-regulatory mechanisms are exploited by individual helminths. Otherwise, a helminth could not reliably evade our immune system to reproduce.

A new study has produced data that suggest that treatment of macaques suffering from chronic diarrhoea with eggs of the whipworm Trichuris suis can alleviate symptoms and modulate both the intestinal microbiota and immunoregulatory pathways. Trichuris suis is the whipworm of the pig, and contrary to Trichuris trichiura (image), T. suis appears not to be able to produce disease in primate hosts (including humans). When T. suis ova (TSO) are administered to humans, transient shedding of ova in faeces may be seen after a few weeks, but the individual remains asymptomatic.
Gene expression profiling of colonic biopsies from the macaques treated with TSO revealed up-regulation of genes typically involved in the so-called Th1-type immuno-response prior to TSO challenge, while induction of the Th2-type response followed after the TSO challenge; the Th2-type response resulted in mucosal repair, probably by increasing mucus production and turnover of epithelial cells, which again led to a reduction of bacterial attachment to the gut lining and a restoration of microbial diversity.

Briefly, a Th1-type response is generally a pro-inflammatory response that, among many other things, is responsible for microbicidal actions and perpetuating autoimmune responses. Excessive pro-inflammatory responses can lead to uncontrolled tissue damage, so there needs to be a mechanism to counteract this. The Th2­-type response includes the secretion of the anti-inflammatory cytokines, co-responsible for a general anti­-inflammatory response. In excess, Th2-type responses will counteract the Th1-mediated microbicidal action. The optimal scenario would therefore seem to be that humans should produce a well balanced Th1- and Th2-type response, suited to the immune challenge.
On top of the immunoregulatory impact, there is emerging evidence that helminths promote the growth and expansion of groups of bacteria that are beneficial or "probiotic" to the host. In the study of the macaques, the TSO induced a change in the intestinal microbiota.

While variation in160 genes in the human genome or more have been associated with increased risk of developing IBD, no specific gene variant that is sufficient or required for dysregulated mucosal inflammation as occurs in Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis has been identified so far. There is a field of thought now saying that - over thousands of years - the human gut flora, including helminths, drove the development of variations in genes orchestrating various immune response pathways, and such genetic variations selected to operate under the influence of helminth infection could cause disease when operating without that influence.

So, the take home message here is that infestation by intestinal parasites may be a double-edged sword: While on one hand they may cause symptoms, they may on the other hand prevent us from developing inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune or allergic manifestations. Hence, helminths, although parasites, may contribute something in return to their hosts, and the loss of helminths removes a natural governor that helped to prevent disease due to immune regulation. Of course, more trials are needed before "helminth therapy" can actually be standardised, commercialised and used in the prophylaxis and treatment of IBD and gut allergic conditions. Once a good mechanistic understanding of how helminths alter immunity is available, it may even be possible to apply identified factors individually or in combination to treat disease.

As always, things are much more complex than presented here, but this post gives an impression of some of the fields of thought. Not all autoimmune diseases are driven by excessive Th1-type responses; some types of asthma may be driven by Th2-type response, but even here, helminths may favourably modulate immunoregulatory pathways.

Obviously, it would be interesting to explore how other parasitic infections impact on our immune system and gut flora. Interestingly, one helminth species appears to have "survived" in our "sterile" environment, - the pinworm (Enterobius)... and as pointed out in one of my recent blog posts (go here), many of us are definitely exposed to parasites that persist in our intestines for months, maybe years. What's their role in all of this?

Further reading:

Dirtying Up Our Diets - go here

Parasitic Worm Eggs Ease Intestinal Ills By Changing Gut Microbiota - go here.

Jostins L, et al. Host-microbe interactions have shaped the genetic architecture of inflammatory bowel disease. Nature, 491 (7422), 119-24 PMID: 23128233

Berger, A. (2000). Science commentary: Th1 and Th2 responses: what are they? BMJ, 321 (7258), 424-424 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.321.7258.424
Elliott, D., & Weinstock, J. (2012). Where are we on worms? Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, 28 (6), 551-556 DOI: 10.1097/MOG.0b013e3283572f73
Elliott, D., & Weinstock, J. (2012). Helminth-host immunological interactions: prevention and control of immune-mediated diseases Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1247 (1), 83-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06292.x
Weinstock, J. (2012). Autoimmunity: The worm returns Nature, 491 (7423), 183-185 DOI: 10.1038/491183a

Elliott DE, Summers RW, & Weinstock JV (2007). Helminths as governors of immune-mediated inflammation. International journal for parasitology, 37 (5), 457-64 PMID: 17313951

Broadhurst, MJ., et al.Therapeutic helminth infection of macaques with idiopathic chronic diarrhoea alters the inflammatory signature and mucosal microbiota of the colon PLoS Pathogens (PLoS Pathog 8(11): e1003000. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1003000).

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How Hard Can It Be?

How strange the world of clinical microbiology is when you compare the fields of mycology, parasitology, bacteriology and virology to each other. Such different possibilities, opportunities, limitations, and diagnostic challenges! The 3 month mortality rate of invasive aspergillosis, a disease mainly caused by Aspergillus fumigatus and seen in mainly patients with haematological malignancies, patients undergoing allogenic HSCT and patients in ICUs, may be as high as 60%, and therefore a quick and reliable diagnosis is mandatory to secure timely therapeutic intervention. But, - Aspergillus fumigatus happens to be ubiquitous, and contamination of patient samples, whether blood or airway samples, may always be a potential cause of false-positive test results, and one of the reasons why the use of PCR as a first line diagnostic tool in routine mycology labs is still limited. Antigen tests, such as the Galactomannan antigen test, which also allow quick diagnosis can also be false-positive, not only due to sample contamination, but also due to galactomannan residues in medical compounds, such as the widely applied antibiotic Tazocin (piperacillin-tazobactam), which means that patients who have been given this drug and who submit a blood sample for galactomannan testing may test slightly positive even in the absence of an Aspergillus infection.
These are only some classical examples. In the field of mycology, positive predictive values (PPV; i.e. what is the probability of disease given a positive test result) are sometimes unacceptably low, and the lower the prevalence of the disease, the lower the PPV. This means that you need a lot of experience and knowledge on pre-test-probability + data from clinical and diagnostic work-ups, including anamnestic details, to determine whether or not the patient should receive therapy, such as treatment with voriconazole, -  a relatively expensive drug.

Aspergillus fumigatus - the most common cause of invasive aspergillosis - on blood agar.

In the parasitology lab, however, things are quite different. Contamination of patient samples is rarely an issue, and in most cases not possible at all (disregarding DNA contamination of course). Specificity of microscopy is very often very high (close to 100%), which means that the PPV is very high even in cases where the disease is rare. Hence, if cysts of Giardia have been detected in your stool, it's due to the presence of the parasite in your body. It's a bit more tricky with PCR-based analyses, where the specificity does not rely on your ability to visually distinguish between e.g. Giardia and non-Giardia elements, but where it's all about designing oligos that anneal only to Giardia-DNA.
While in the mycology lab we struggle with low PPVs, one of the biggest challenges for me and my colleagues in the parasitology lab is to optimise the negative predictive value (NPV) of a faecal parasite diagnostic work-up - how can we rule out parasitic disease by cost-effectively putting together a panel of as few tests as possible?

There are many other differences. For instance, you can grow bacteria and fungi in the lab very easily, in fact, culture of bacteria and fungi is an essential diagnostic tool, which also allows you to submit the strain to antibiotic or antimycotic susceptibility testing and molecular characterisation/MALDI-TOF analysis in case you are not sure about the species ID. So, you have the strains right there in front of you, on agar plates, and they grow and grow, and you can keep them for as long as you like, - clean, non-contaminated strains on selective media.
You can't really do that with parasites, not nearly to the same extent and as easily, that is. For instance, you can culture Blastocystis directly from stool for sure (go here for the protocol), but only in the presence of bacteria (some of my colleagues do actually now and then manage to grow strains of Blastocystis in the absence of bacteria, they obtain what is called "axenic" cultures, but I believe that they cannot do it consistently and in limited time.). And it's a pity, since there is so much you can do when you have "clean" patient strains. Apart from susceptibility testing (which would actually be a bit difficult since Blastocystis is strictly anaerobic, so you can't really have it in microtiter plates or on RPMI plates on the table in front of you, but the strains could be challenged in the growth tubes), you can also extract DNA, and you would know that all the DNA that you extract from the isolate is from that particular strain, and not from bacterial contaminants. You can use the strain for production of antigens which can be used in ELISAs and used to generate mono- and polyclonal antibodies... Sequencing genomes of various subtypes would be a lot easier and quicker, and so on...

So, what appears obvious in one field of microbiology is not as obvious in another field, and vice versa. I wish Blastocystis was much easier to isolate. Dientamoeba too. Dientamoeba is probably as common as Blastocystis, and not rarely seen in co-infections. It is strange to contemplate that a parasite infecting hundreds of millions of people has not yet had its genome sequenced? We have no clue when it comes to effector proteins in Dientamoeba, and also for this parasite, what we know about its clinical significance relies mainly on epidemiological data.

There is no doubt that concerted efforts of experienced scientists should make it possible to develop appropriate and relevant culture protocols for these parasites. It does, however, require a lot of resources and time to get to know these common, but oh so fragile and reclusive little creatures...

Further reading:
Clark CG, & Diamond LS (2002). Methods for cultivation of luminal parasitic protists of clinical importance. Clinical microbiology reviews, 15 (3), 329-41 PMID: 12097242

Verweij PE, Kema GH, Zwaan B, & Melchers WJ (2012). Triazole fungicides and the selection of resistance to medical triazoles in the opportunistic mould Aspergillus fumigatus. Pest management science PMID: 23109245

Stensvold, C., Jørgensen, L., & Arendrup, M. (2012). Azole-Resistant Invasive Aspergillosis: Relationship to Agriculture Current Fungal Infection Reports, 6 (3), 178-191 DOI: 10.1007/s12281-012-0097-7

Maertens J, Theunissen K, Verhoef G, & Van Eldere J (2004). False-positive Aspergillus galactomannan antigen test results. Clinical infectious diseases : an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 39 (2), 289-90 PMID: 15307045
Munasinghe VS, Stark D, & Ellis JT (2012). New advances in the in-vitro culture of Dientamoeba fragilis. Parasitology, 139 (7), 864-9 PMID: 22336222