IOWA CITY, Iowa, June 2 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Iowa have discovered that a primary cause for type 2 diabetes may be persistent exposure to a toxin produced by Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, bacteria.
The potential discovery is in line with recent studies finding microbe interaction with the microbiome, the ecosystem of bacteria that colonize human bodies and are essential to the way they operate, can cause illnesses beyond just infections, such as cervical cancer and stomach ulcers.
In the study, researchers exposed rabbits to the staph toxin for prolonged periods of time. The toxin interacted with fat cells and the immune system, causing chronic systemic inflammation leading to symptoms of type 2 diabetes, including insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.
In humans, obesity is one of the major risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Obesity also, however, alters the microbiome. Previous studies have shown that superantigens produced by the staph bacteria disrupt the immune system and can wreak havoc on the body.
"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," said Patrick Schlievert, professor and department executive officer of microbiology at the UI Carver College of Medicine, in a press release. "People who are colonized by staph bacteria are being chronically exposed to the superantigens the bacteria are producing."
As part of the study, researchers examined four patients with diabetes and estimate the exposure to staph antigens from colonies on their skin is roughly equivalent to the rabbits' exposure.
"I think we have a way to intercede here and alter the course of diabetes," Schlievert says. "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 study is published in mBio.