Acute infection upsets a healthy balance between good and bad microbes in the gut, especially with antibiotic treatment, according to Rutgers scientists who examined the impact of the virus that causes COVID-19 on patients' microbiomes, the collection of microorganisms that live in and on the human body.
The research could result in the creation of probiotic pills to correct any gastrointestinal abnormalities in future patients, according to the researchers.
The first findings of an ongoing investigation into the microbiomes of patients and volunteers at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick were published in the scholarly journal Molecular Biomedicine.
The study, which began in May 2020, the early days of the pandemic, was designed to zero in on the microbiome because many COVID-19 sufferers complained of gastrointestinal issues - both during the acute phases of their illness and while recuperating.
"We wanted to gain a deeper understanding by looking at specimens that would give us an indication about the state of the gut microbiome in people," said Martin Blaser, the Henry Rutgers Chair of the Human Microbiome at Rutgers University, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine (CABM) at Rutgers and an author on the study.
"We found that, while there were differences between people who had COVID-19 and those who were not ill, the biggest difference from others was seen in those who had been administered antibiotics."
According to Blaser, who is also a professor of medicine, pathology, and laboratory medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, it was common practice to treat COVID-19 patients with a round of antibiotics early in the pandemic, before the introduction of vaccines and other antiviral treatments, in an effort to combat potential secondary infections.
According to Blaser, humans harbour substantial and varied populations of microorganisms. The colon has the highest concentration of these germs, although they also reside in the gastrointestinal system, on the skin, and in other organs. The microbiome interacts with metabolism, the immune system, and the central nervous system to influence human health, as researchers like Blaser have demonstrated over the past few decades.
The microbiome has many different functions. "One is to protect the human body against invading pathogens, whether they're bacteria or viruses or fungi," Blaser said. "That goes deep into evolution, maybe a billion years of evolution."
Medical problems often arise when the balance between beneficial and pathogenic microbes in a person's microbiome is thrown off, a condition known as dysbiosis.
By counting the populations of bacteria in faeces samples collected from 60 individuals, researchers were able to study microbiomes. Twenty COVID-19 patients, twenty healthy donors, and twenty COVID-19-recovered participants made up the study group. When contrasting the microbiomes of infected patients with the healthy and recovered patients, they discovered significant variations in the populations of 55 different bacterial species.
To determine the long-term impact of COVID-19 on specific microbiomes, Rutgers researchers intend to keep testing and monitoring the microbiomes of study participants.
"Further investigation of patients will enhance understanding of the role of the gut microbiome in COVID-19 disease progression and recovery," Blaser said. "These findings may help identify microbial targets and probiotic supplements for improving COVID-19 treatment."