A new paper by UBC Faculty of Medicine’s Dr. Brett Finlay and a team of fellows from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) proposes that non-communicable diseases may be transmitted between people through the microbiome.
Non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and lung disease account for 70 percent of deaths worldwide. These diseases are considered non-communicable because they are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors and can’t be transmitted between people.
The paper, published today in Science, throws this long-held belief into question by providing evidence that many diseases may be transmissible between people through microbes (including bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that live in and on our bodies.
“If our hypothesis is proven correct, it will rewrite the entire book on public health,” says Finlay, the paper’s lead author and a professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology and CIFAR fellow.
The authors base their hypothesis on connections between three distinct lines of evidence. First, they demonstrate that people with a wide range of conditions, from obesity and inflammatory bowel disease to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, have altered microbiomes. Next, they show that altered microbiomes, when taken from diseased people and put into animal models, cause disease. Finally, they provide evidence that the microbiome is naturally transmissible, for example: spouses who share a house have more similar microbiomes than twins who live separately.
“When you put those facts together, it points to the idea that many traditionally non-communicable diseases may be communicable after all,” says Finlay.
“If our hypothesis is proven correct, it will rewrite the entire book on public health.”
“This paper provides a provocative new way to think about non-communicable diseases, with important implications for public health,” says Alan Bernstein, the president and CEO of CIFAR. “Ideas like this are a great example of what happens when top researchers from around the world work together in an environment of trust, transparency, and knowledge sharing.”
While there is a lot of excitement about this hypothesis, the researchers are clear that much remains unknown about the mechanisms involved.
“We hope the paper will inspire further research into the mechanisms and extent of communicability,” says Finlay. “We encourage researchers studying any disease to think about what effect microbes may be having.”