Bacteria are one of the primary causes of infectious diseases in people, but according to a new study, these microorganisms could also be linked to the spread of type 2 diabetes.

Scientists at the University of Iowa have discovered that long-term exposure to a Staphylococcus aureus toxin called superantigens can affect fat cells and disrupt the immune system enough to cause systemic inflammation.

This inflammation then causes the body to become resistant to insulin and experience other symptoms associated with diabetes.

Iowa microbiologist Patrick Schlievert and his team of researchers conducted an experiment on rabbits to find out the effects of superantigens on the body.

They found that the longer the animals were exposed to the toxin, the more they developed classic symptoms of type 2 diabetes, such as glucose intolerance, systemic inflammation and increased levels of endotoxin in the bloodstream.

"We basically reproduced Type 2 diabetes in rabbits simply through chronic exposure to the staph superantigen," Schlievert said.

The findings of the study suggest that therapies designed to eliminate staph bacteria or neutralize the superantigens the microorganisms produce could also be used to treat people with Type 2 diabetes or even prevent the illness from developing.

Obesity, a known risk factor for developing diabetes, has also been found to alter the ecosystem of bacteria in the human body. This change could potentially lead to severe changes in the balance between good and bad bacteria on the skin and digestive systems of an individual.

"What we are finding is that as people gain weight, they are increasingly likely to be colonized by staph bacteria - to have large numbers of these bacteria living on the surface of their skin," he said.

"People who are colonized by staph bacteria are being chronically exposed to the superantigens the bacteria are producing."

Schlievert and his team examined the levels of staph infection on the skin of four diabetes patients. They estimate that levels of bacterial superantigens they detected on the patients were proportionate to the superantigen doses that caused the rabbits to develop diabetes in the experiment.

"I think we have a way to intercede here and alter the course of diabetes," Schlievert said.

"We are working on a vaccine against the superantigens and we believe that this type of vaccine could prevent the development of Type 2 diabetes."

The researchers are also studying the effects of using a topical gel containing glycerol monolaurate in killing Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on contact. They plan to test the potential of this treatment in helping to improve the blood sugar levels of patients with diabetes.

The University of Iowa study is published in the journal mBio.

Photo: Oskar Annermarken | Flickr 

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