Volunteers are being sought for a major study to help determine how the gut microbiome can be used to treat multiple sclerosis, lupus, and other diseases.

What if your gut flora was actually a healing agent capable of doing battle with autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis?

According to researchers, it just might be.

And a major multiple sclerosis organization is looking for volunteers to help prove it.

Gut flora, technically known as gastrointestinal microbiota, is the complex community of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. These microorganisms are a critical part of your health.

Bacteria line your intestine and help you digest food. They also send signals to the immune system and make small molecules that can help your brain function.

You get gut flora at birth from your mother, but after that it’s heavily influenced by lifestyle and eating habits.

Researchers have determined that people with certain diseases often have a different mix of bacteria in their intestines compared to healthier people.

There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases in which the body turns on itself. In response to an unknown trigger, the immune system begins producing antibodies that instead of fighting infections, attack the body’s own tissues.

Since more women are affected than men, some physicians believe hormones may play a role.

The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) calls these ailments a major health problem. It’s estimated that at least 23 million Americans have these chronic and sometimes life-threatening diseases.

But help may be on the way.

In a recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, researchers from the Mayo Clinic and University of Iowa concluded that the human gut microbe may help treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

“This is an early discovery but an avenue that bears further study,” said Dr. Joseph Murray, a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist and senior author of the article. “If we can use the microbes already in the human body to treat human disease beyond the gut itself, we may be onto a new era of medicine. We are talking about bugs as drugs.”

The research team tested gut microbial samples from patients on a mouse model of MS.

They discovered that one microbe, prevotella histicola, caused a decrease in two types of pro-inflammatory cells while increasing families of cells that fight disease.

The researchers concluded that this type of gut microbe may play a role in treating MS. In MS, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, a natural insulation that covers the nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

“The hope for studies of the microbiome in MS is that ultimately researchers will identify microbiome abnormalities that may be driving MS activity or susceptibility, and from this it is hoped that probiotic therapies may be developed to treat or possibly prevent MS,” Douglas S. Landsman, PhD, associate vice president of biomedical research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society told HealthLine.

Landsman says that in light of this emerging evidence, the MS Society is now funding the International MS Microbiome Study (iMSMS). The iMSMS is a research consortium involving scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Argentina.

The iMSMS will collect blood and stool samples from 4,000 participants to catalogue individual microbiota populations to determine which species are protective, neutral, and/or high risk.

Information gained from this study will assist researchers as they test the possibility of manipulating gut microbiota to alter the course of MS and other immune-related disorders.

Interested individuals can learn more at the National MS Society website.