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Bacterial Toxin May Be One Trigger for Multiple Sclerosis

Bacterial toxin trigger for MS

Although experts do not know the cause of multiple sclerosis (MS), one research team from Weill Cornell Medical College has provided evidence that a bacterial toxin may be a trigger in genetically vulnerable individuals. What do we know about this possible trigger for MS?

The epsilon toxin
The epsilon toxin is one of 12 protein toxins that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. Of the five strains of C. perfringens, two (B and D) produce this toxin, which is known to cause fluid and potassium to leak out of cells.

Read about another MS trigger

People are typically exposed to C. perfringens in soil and in undercooked contaminated meats, resulting in what is commonly referred to as food poisoning. Symptoms typically include diarrhea, severe abdominal cramps, bloating, and nausea.

Previous studies of epsilon toxin in animals have shown that the substance causes neurological signs in lambs, calves, and goat kids. In rats, the toxin has resulted in brain edema.

The MS and toxin study
In the study, microbiologist Dr. Jennifer Linden and her team exposed mice to the toxin and observed which cells were affected. Epsilon was attracted to brain cells and other nervous system cells and caused effects seen only in people who have MS.

Those effects included:

  • The ability of the toxin to pass through the blood brain barrier and kill the myelin producing cells (oligodendrocytes), which are the cells that die in people who have MS. Myelin is the protective coating on nerve cells.
  • The ability of the toxin to attack cells associated with inflammation in MS

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Read about beneficial bacteria as a trigger

Linden and her team also tested 37 food samples, which yielded C. perfringens in 13.5 percent, 2.7 percent of which contained the epsilon toxin gene. This finding is in line with the fact that epsilon toxin is present in only two of the five strains of C. perfringens, and that disease in humans is usually associated with the A and C strains of the bacteria.

Based on the results of their study, Linden concluded that “Epsilon toxin may be responsible for triggering MS.”

Another reason Linden and her colleagues believe epsilon toxin may have a role in triggering MS is that in an earlier report, they noted the presence of C. perfringens type B in a young patient who had MS.

Read about passing on MS

Once further studies of C. perfringens and epsilon toxin are conducted, scientists may confirm the role of this substance in MS. If the bacterial toxin is found to play a part in MS, then researchers may develop a vaccine to stop progression of the disease.

American Society for Microbiology
Iowa State University. Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens

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