Public health officials have known for some time that Guillain-Barre Syndrome could be triggered by the foodborne Campylobacter jejuni, but a research team at Michigan State University only recently discovered how the pathogen commonly found in undercooked chicken leads to the paralyzing neuromuscular disorder.

Funded by the federal government’s National Institutes of Health Enterics Research Investigational Network, or ERIN, the research was recently published in the Journal of Autoimmunity.

Linda Mansfield Photo courtesy of MSU
Linda Mansfield Photo courtesy of MSU

“What our work has told us is that it takes a certain genetic makeup combined with a certain Campylobacter strain to cause this disease,” Linda Mansfield, lead author and MSU College of Veterinary Medicine professor, said in a news release.

“The concerning thing is that many of these strains are resistant to antibiotics and our work shows that treatment with some antibiotics could actually make the disease worse.”

Although only 3,000 to 6,000 cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or GBS, are estimated to occur in the U.S. on an annual basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the leading cause of acute neuromuscular paralysis in the world.

It is not known what causes all cases of GBS, but the CDC reports about two-thirds of people who get GBS do so several days or weeks after they have been sick with diarrhea or a lung or sinus illness. Infection with the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni is one of the most common risk factors for GBS, according to the CDC.

“Campylobacter jejuni infects more than a million people yearly in the United States and is also known to trigger other autoimmune disorders such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Reiter’s arthritis,” according to the CDC.

Many people who develop GBS initially have vomiting and diarrhea, but they often dismiss the symptoms as being from eating so-called bad food. One to three weeks later, they begin to develop weakness and tingling in the feet and legs. Gradually, paralysis can spread to the upper body and arms, and even a respirator may be needed for breathing.

For people genetically predisposed to develop GBS, cases related to Campylobacter jejuni in undercooked chicken can be prevented by cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, which kills the pathogen.

Mansfield wants to continue researching the situation in pursuit of new treatments for victims.

“We have successfully produced three preclinical models of GBS that represent two different forms of the syndrome seen in humans,” Mansfield said in the university news release. “Our models now provide a unique opportunity to understand how your personal genetic type may make you more susceptible to certain forms of GBS.”

“These models hold great potential for discovery of new treatments for this paralysis,” Mansfield said. “Many patients with GBS are critically ill and they can’t participate in clinical trials. The models we identified can help solve this.”

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