Gut studies hold promise for prevention

L-R, Dr. Michael Widlansky, Dr. John Baker, and Dr. Nita Salzman discuss their research, which seeks to harness the power of intestinal bacteria to maintain cardiovascular health.

L-R, Dr. Michael Widlansky, Dr. John Baker, and Dr. Nita Salzman discuss their research, which seeks to harness the power of intestinal bacteria to maintain cardiovascular health. 

Follow your gut: Medical College of Wisconsin researchers are studying intestinal bacteria as a promising new approach for the prevention of heart attacks and a range of other conditions, including pediatric liver disease and antibiotic-resistant, hospital-acquired infections.

The trillions of bacteria living in your gut may be a powerful ally for your health. Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) investigators are part of a major, national research effort intensively studying the body’s bacteria to better understand their role in maintaining health and preventing disease.

A team led by John Baker, PhD, was the first to discover a link between the type of bacteria in the intestines with susceptibility to and severity of heart attacks. Working with rat models, their research demonstrated for the first time that a probiotic bacterium, Lactobacillis plantarum 299v, as well as the
antibiotic vancomycin, reduced substantially the injury from a heart attack.

Now, through funding from the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) of Southeast Wisconsin, a clinical trial is investigating if this cardio-protective effect holds true in humans. Dr. Baker is collaborating with Nita Salzman, MD, PhD; Michael Widlansky, MD, MPH; and Shailendra B. Patel, BM, ChB, DPhil, to study the effects of the probiotic and antibiotic in patient volunteers with cardiovascular disease. The goal is to determine whether certain biological markers of heart disease will be improved.

“This CTSI-sponsored study is addressing the significant need for identifying new knowledge and therapies for heart disease. The link between gut bacteria and the severity of heart attacks may lead to novel approaches to prevent heart attacks from ever happening, as well as new diagnostic tests,” said Dr. Baker. The CTSI is part of a national consortium of 62 top medical research institutions dedicated to improving health through research and education. Its eight partnering institutions are MCW, Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, UW-Milwaukee, Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, the VA Medical Center, and the BloodCenter of Wisconsin.

The greatest concentration of bacteria in the body resides in the gastrointestinal tract, where they live in a delicately balanced ecosystem. Previously, Dr. Salzman’s research identified a highly regulated balance between the intestinal ecosystem and the immune system. With more than $8.8 million in National Institute of Health grants, Dr. Salzman is studying how disruptions of this balance can lead to disease.

A major focus is pediatric fatty liver disease, which occurs when excess fat builds up in liver cells and can lead to liver failure. The incidence is increasing with the rise in obesity and diabetes in children. Dr. Salzman and collaborator Ingrid Borecki, PhD, from Washington University School of Medicine, and colleagues from Johns Hopkins and University of California, San Diego, are studying intestinal bacterial in children with the disease. Their aim is to identify the bacterial changes affecting the disease progression.

Dr. Salzman and Christopher Kristich, PhD, are studying the antibiotic-resistant bacterium, Enterococcus faecalis. Research focused on antibiotic resistance is significant. With few treatment options available, antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose the risk of causing serious infections that are untreatable.

Dr. Baker is Professor of Surgery in Cardiothoracic Surgery; Dr. Salzman is Associate Professor of Pediatrics in Gastroenterology and researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Research Institute; Dr. Widlansky is Associate Professor of Medicine in Cardiovascular Medicine; Dr. Patel is Professor of Medicine in Endocrinology, Metabolism and Clinical Nutrition and Staff Attending, Zablocki VA Medical Center; Dr. Kristich is Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

Read more about the Clinical and Translational Science Institute of Southeast Wisconsin at


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