Monday, 16 May 2016

More [metabolomic] evidence for dysbiosis and some autism?

The paper by Xiyue Xiong and colleagues [1] (open-access available here) took my attention recently and some further evidence contributory to the idea that the trillions of wee beasties that call our gastrointestinal (GI) tract home - collectively known as the gut microbiome - might have some important links to at least 'some' autism.

Describing the results of "a GC/MS based metabolomic approach"  - GC-MS being gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and metabolomic(s) being the analysis of 'small molecule metabolites found in biological fluids such as blood, saliva and urine' - the authors report results based on analysis of urine specimens for some 62 children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared to 62 'not-autism' controls. Bearing in mind that quite a few of the compounds normally found in urine are linked to the goings-on in the gut microbiome, the authors ensured that "Children included in the study had no antianaerobic drug use history" (i.e. certain types of antibiotics were not used).

Results: "Three compounds identified as 3-(3-hydroxyphenyl)-3-hydroxypropionic acid (HPHPA), 3-hydroxyphenylacetic acid (3HPA), and 3-hydroxyhippuric acid (3HHA) were found in higher concentrations in autistic children than in the controls." I was rather interested in the HPHPA finding in particular given that it has previously appeared on this blog in relation to autism and the gut microbiome (see here) following other peer-reviewed findings [2]. The watchword on that previous post was 'dysbiosis' and how alterations in the relative levels of certain gut bacterial species might have some rather intriguing outcomes [3]. The idea therefore being that the action of certain types of bacteria on the proposed starting material for HPHPA (the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine) might influence metabolism and lead to elevations in this metabolite. At this point I'll also refer you to some other musing on research on another aromatic amino acid (tryptophan) that might also be 'autism-relevant' (see here).

Indeed to further test the idea of a gut microbial link to the elevations noted in HPHPA and related metabolites, Xiong et al provide further details: "Fifty HPHPA-positive autistic children (9/50 patients 3HPA-positive and 17/50 patients 3HHA-positive) were selected for oral vancomycin treatment at standard age-appropriate dosages (50 mg/kg/d, 30 days as one therapeutic course) followed by supplement therapy with Bifidobacterium agent (Bifidobacterium BB-12, 2 pills a day)." Use of vancomycin - a quite powerful antibiotic indicated for the treatment of 'Clostridium difficile–associated Disease' [4] among other things - is not unheard of in autism research and practice circles (see here) and this time around there were significant decreases in the levels of HPHPA and related metabolites "which indicated that these compounds may also be from gut Clostridium species." Further, when vancomycin was stopped: "3–6 months later, the concentration of HPHPA almost recovered to its initial level in 3 patients and recovered to 0.08–0.45 times their initial values in 12 patients." Authors also noted that some behavioural scores might have been affected by the use of vancomycin that could be construed along the same lines as when Sandler et al reported on the use of vancomycin with 'regressive-onset autism' in mind [5].

The authors also add in some details about how "measurements of the three metabolites are strong predictors of ASDs and support the potential clinical utility for identifying a subgroup of ASDs subjects in whom disordered phenylalanine metabolism may be a salient characteristic." On this point I'm not convinced that on the basis of 60 or so children and with 3 metabolites in mind (out of the thousands that we excrete everyday influenced by all manner of 'internal' and 'external' forces) there is biomarker potential for 'all autism' just yet. I am in agreement that 'disordered phenylalanine metabolism' for a subgroup on the autism spectrum is a possibility based on the use of 'phenylalanine mopping up' compounds in other peer-reviewed work (see here) for example. But much more research is indicated...

These are interesting results that, yet again, require independent replication. Because I am a bit of stickler when it comes to all-things metabolomics (especially where mass spectrometry is involved) I might be inclined to mention about how adjustment using creatinine might have issues when it comes to autism (see here) which could affect the final quantification of metabolites. I might also suggest that the GC-MS system used and the urine sample pre-treatment applied before analysis could be 'up-graded' taking into account more accurate detection methods (e.g. q-ToF mass spectrometry with liquid chromatography separation) with a greater focus on features like accurate mass.

But don't let me put you off from the idea that marrying metabolomics and microbiomics could be a good autism research idea. Although on the topic of whether we might be able to 'alter' our microbiomes/metabolome in ways other than the use of potent antibiotics, the jury is still out [6] bearing in mind how diet might affect results...


[1] Xiong X. et al. Urinary 3-(3-Hydroxyphenyl)-3-hydroxypropionic Acid, 3-Hydroxyphenylacetic Acid, and 3-Hydroxyhippuric Acid Are Elevated in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Biomed Res Int. 2016;2016:9485412.

[2] Shaw W. Increased urinary excretion of a 3-(3-hydroxyphenyl)-3-hydroxypropionic acid (HPHPA), an abnormal phenylalanine metabolite of Clostridia spp. in the gastrointestinal tract, in urine samples from patients with autism and schizophrenia. Nutr Neurosci. 2010 Jun;13(3):135-43.

[3] Rogers GB. et al. From gut dysbiosis to altered brain function and mental illness: mechanisms and pathways. Molecular Psychiatry. 2016. April 19.

[4] Shen EP. & Surawicz CM. Current Treatment Options for Severe Clostridium difficile–associated Disease. Gastroenterology & Hepatology. 2008;4(2):134-139.

[5] Sandler RH. et al. Short-term benefit from oral vancomycin treatment of regressive-onset autism. J Child Neurol. 2000 Jul;15(7):429-35.

[6] Kristensen NB. et al. Alterations in fecal microbiota composition by probiotic supplementation in healthy adults: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Genome Medicine. 2016; 8: 52.

---------- Xiong X, Liu D, Wang Y, Zeng T, & Peng Y (2016). Urinary 3-(3-Hydroxyphenyl)-3-hydroxypropionic Acid, 3-Hydroxyphenylacetic Acid, and 3-Hydroxyhippuric Acid Are Elevated in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. BioMed research international, 2016 PMID: 27123458