Lactose drives Enterococcus expansion to promote graft-versus-host disease

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Science  29 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6469, pp. 1143-1149
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax3760

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Lactose can fuel GVHD

Allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation (allo-HCT) is used to treat certain hematopoietic malignancies, but patients have a risk of developing graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). Stein-Thoeringer et al. performed a large-scale analysis of more than 1300 patients treated with allo-HCT across four clinical centers (see the Perspective by Zitvogel and Kroemer). High levels of bacteria from the Enterococcus genus were associated with greater incidence of GVHD and mortality. Lactose appears to provide a substrate for Enterococcus growth, and patients with a lactose-malabsorption genotype had a greater abundance of Enterococcus. A lactose-free diet limited Enterococcus growth, reduced the severity of GVHD, and improved survival in gnotobiotic mouse models.

Science, this issue p. 1143; see also p. 1077


Disruption of intestinal microbial communities appears to underlie many human illnesses, but the mechanisms that promote this dysbiosis and its adverse consequences are poorly understood. In patients who received allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation (allo-HCT), we describe a high incidence of enterococcal expansion, which was associated with graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) and mortality. We found that Enterococcus also expands in the mouse gastrointestinal tract after allo-HCT and exacerbates disease severity in gnotobiotic models. Enterococcus growth is dependent on the disaccharide lactose, and dietary lactose depletion attenuates Enterococcus outgrowth and reduces the severity of GVHD in mice. Allo-HCT patients carrying lactose-nonabsorber genotypes showed compromised clearance of postantibiotic Enterococcus domination. We report lactose as a common nutrient that drives expansion of a commensal bacterium that exacerbates an intestinal and systemic inflammatory disease.

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