The human gastrointestinal tract may not be a frequent topic of everyday conversation, but it sure is a conversation worth having as it is home to symbiotic bacteria that assist in digestion. Besides digestion, bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract affect numerous processes in the body. Bacteria have the ability to affect treatment of diseases like diabetes. Dr. Kristi Whitehead from the Department of Biological Sciences described, “Sometimes we know there are genetic or host factors that play a role, but there are some unknown factors also, and people are really interested in research regarding that.”
Treatment of children with type 1 diabetes involves diet manipulation and limited exposure to harmful catalysts. Not only is it difficult to ensure adherence to dietary and lifestyle changes but also hard to pinpoint areas that require change. Type 1 diabetes can also be affected by a person’s genetic family history, something children have no control over. With these and other difficulties in mind, students began to explore the questions of understanding and potentially treating type 1 diabetes. Their investigations started with the microbiota in the gut. Bacteria of the genus Bacteroides are present in the human gastrointestinal tract and can affect positive change in patients with type 1 diabetes.
The team focused on developing a therapeutic molecule that could change the microbiota in the gut without being harmful to the individual. That is not an easy task. Dr. Daniel Whitehead from the Department of Chemistry explained, “The gastrointestinal tract in terms of an ecosystem is pretty competitive. The bacteria that live in your gut, they sort of have to fight each other for nutrients.” The team worked hard to discover molecules that selectively inhibit the Bacteroides without affecting other important microbes in the gut.
“The gastrointestinal tract in terms of an ecosystem is pretty competitive.”
This Creative Inquiry project has been active for more than three years. Based on their preliminary data, they received funding from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. There is still much to be discovered in this project that has been conducted primarily by Clemson undergraduates. Students from a wide variety of majors are involved in this Creative Inquiry project. For some, this project spurred them to considering pursuing medical or graduate degrees.
Undergraduates in research encounter limitations as well as opportunities for discoveries. One difficulty the team experiences is getting new students acclimated to their research environment and methods. Bacteria found in the intestine are extremely finicky and must be handled with extreme care and attention to detail. Even a short exposure to our oxygen-filled atmosphere would kill the bacteria. There are also many opportunities for growth. The team is preparing to test their molecules in mice with type I diabetes, a venture never attempted on Clemson’s campus.