The Link Between Gut Viruses and Cardiometabolic Disease 

21st February 2024 – By TwinsUK

A recent review published by researchers at TwinsUK sheds light on the potential role of viruses living in the gut, known as phages, in cardiometabolic diseases (CMDs).  

CMDs are a group of common and often preventable chronic diseases that affect the system of the heart and include type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.  They have been increasingly prevalent worldwide, with factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and diet contributing to their rise.  

More recently, the gut microbiome, a collection of microorganisms that exist in our large intestine, has also been implicated in CMDs. Interesting links have been found between bacteria and aspects of metabolic health, such as bodyweight, blood sugar and inflammation. However, the majority of existing research has focused on bacteria, overlooking other microorganisms such as phages. 

Phages are viruses that, instead of infecting human cells, infect bacteria cells, and in doing so play a crucial role in shaping bacterial communities within the gut, which in turn can affect human health. By infecting gut bacteria, phages can alter the abundance of bacteria, which may cause their levels to increase or decrease. Additionally, phages can change the way bacteria behave, for example by changing the metabolites that they release.    

Until now, studying the viruses in the gut has been challenging, which is one of the reasons why they have not been a focus of research. However, recent advancements are enabling researchers to investigate this potentially important but neglected aspect of gut health, with increasing interest being reflected in efforts such as the national Centre for Phage Research in Leicester, which aims to tackle a variety of global challenges through phages.  

Daniel Kirk, first author of the review, emphasises the importance of exploring the role of phages in CMDs: 

” As phages modulate gut bacteria communities, which in turn influence systemic health and susceptibility to cardiometabolic diseases, there is a need for a deeper understanding of how gut viruses contribute to cardiometabolic health.”   

To summarise what is currently known about phages in the gut microbiome in relation to CMDs, the authors searched for literature in this area. Across 15 studies, they found potential links between phages and obesity, type-2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome, amongst others. Their review highlights the potential involvement of phages in human health and provides information to inspire future research in the field, which is still at its inception and yet to be fully explored. 

The review also emphasises that harnessing the therapeutic potential of phages through phage therapy and faecal viral transplants could offer new avenues for treating CMDs. However, while the research is promising, more extensive studies and clinical trials are necessary to validate the efficacy of phage-based therapies in treating CMDs.

Lead author of the paper, Cristina Menni says:

“We highlight the broader implications of phage therapies beyond bacterial infections, extending to other diseases involving microbial imbalances in various organ systems.” 

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