Diabetes, heart disease or obesity - are non-communicable diseases communicable?

Heart disease, diabetes and the like: Can it be transmitted from person to person?

Non-communicable diseases are among the leading causes of death in the world. According to experts, these are chronic diseases that are not caused by acute infections and cannot be transmitted directly from person to person. But a research team is now reporting that such diseases may be communicable.

As the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development explains on its website, around 40 million people die each year from non-communicable diseases. Such diseases are responsible for almost 70 percent of all deaths worldwide. An international research team is now providing information that the so-called "non-communicable" diseases could possibly be passed on from person to person via the microbiome.

Diseases could be passed on through the microbiome

According to the ministry, the four main types of non-communicable diseases are: cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attack and stroke), cancer, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma) and diabetes.

As the Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel (CAU) wrote in a communication, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines them as non-transferable because it is assumed that they are caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors and cannot be transferred between people.

However, in a new research project, a team from the “Humans & the Microbiome” program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) with the participation of Professor Thomas Bosch from the CAU is now questioning this view.

According to the communication, the scientists provide convincing evidence that many diseases that are classified as non-communicable can still be passed on from person to person via the microbiome - and that microbial colonization of the human body, including bacteria, fungi and viruses, is central to the transmission is involved.

The research team recently published the new hypothesis in the leading science journal "Science".

A revolutionary hypothesis

"If our hypothesis turns out to be correct, it will completely redefine our understanding of public health," said Brett Finlay, professor of microbiology at the University of British Columbia and director of the CIFAR research program "Humans & the Microbiome".

The researchers base their theory on establishing connections between three different findings that have already been documented for the first time: First, they were able to show that in a variety of diseases, from obesity (obesity) and inflammatory bowel diseases to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Diseases, the human microbiome shows significant changes compared to the healthy body.

In addition, they showed numerous evidence that such modified microbiome compositions lead to the development of diseases when they are transferred to an originally healthy model organism in a laboratory experiment. For example, if you take the gut microbiome from an obese mouse and transfer it to a healthy animal, it will also become overweight.

Finally, the scientists found numerous indications that indicate the general natural transferability of the microbiome. "If you summarize these facts, it suggests that many diseases that are not traditionally classified as communicable may still be communicable," said Finlay.

Possible transmission of the microbiome even when living together

Researchers from Bosch's research group at Kiel University were able to demonstrate the third aspect in particular.

"If laboratory animals such as the freshwater polyps are not kept individually, but for a certain time in a common habitat, their microbiome and then their external appearance will be the same," says co-author Bosch, spokesman for the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 1182 "Emerging and functioning of meta-organisms ”at the CAU.

“We were able to demonstrate that the microbes get directly from one individual to the other. This transfer of the microbiome may also take place in human coexistence, for example through intensive social contacts or in shared apartments, ”Bosch suspects.

Further research

The researchers emphasize that their hypothesis is bold and that many of the mechanisms involved are still unknown.

"We still don't know in which cases this form of transmission will increase or whether a healthy state can also be transmitted," explains co-author Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "We need more research to understand microbial transmission and its effects," said the scientist.

There is no question today that there is a significant connection between a disturbed microbiome and many diseases. Further research will demonstrate how the microbiome interacts with other influences, such as certain environmental conditions and genetic factors in the transmission of various diseases.

"The new hypothesis makes it clear that we consider disorders of the microbial colonization of the body much more than before as the cause of the disease and also have to investigate the potential transmission path in more detail," says Bosch.

"This aspect will be one of the focal points of our work in our meta-organism collaborative research center in the coming years," said Bosch. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel (CAU): Obesity, heart disease or diabetes could be communicable, (accessed: January 21, 2020), Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel (CAU)
  • B. B Finlay, CIFAR Humans, the Microbiome: Are noncommunicable diseases communicable ?; in: Science, (published: January 17, 2020); as well as: Science: Vol. 367, Issue 6475, pp. 250-251, Science
  • Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development: Non-Communicable Diseases, (accessed: January 21, 2020), Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

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