Blog Global Health Center

How microbes are changing the culture of biomedical research

Written by Natalie VanderNoot, BS in Biology student and Undergraduate Research Scholar at George Mason University; and participant in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

The gut microbiome is the environment of bacteria that make up the intestinal tract that develops through a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The virome, which has not been as much of a hot topic but is still relevant, is the collection of viruses that exist in the intestinal tract. Microbial communities are measured in the gut using stool samples and their analysis and impact have recently been a focus in a wide variety of clinical specialties and public health areas.

Natalie on the balcony of the former Newseum in Washington D.C.

This summer, as part of the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Track, I am working with associate professor and pediatric gastroenterologist Lori Holtz, MD, MSPH, on the Maternal Offspring Microbiome Study (MOMS), funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.  The project aims to gather information about families and their home environments while studying the changes in an infant’s gut microbiome and virome over the first year of life. If we can understand what impact daily life can have on the long term microbiome of a child, we may be able to translate this to clinical recommendations for lifelong gut health.

From 2008-2013, Washington University School of Medicine was one of the four nationwide sequencing sites for the NIH Human Microbiome Project, which included microbial information from nasal, oral, skin, gastrointestinal, and urogenital samples to characterize the microbiome in a total of 300 individuals from the four sites. Since the project, microbiome research has grown in both academic and commercial environments, pushing towards a greater understanding of microbial influence and treatment options. For example, scientists at Loyola University have been studying the urinary microbiome and how it’s different in women with Type 2 diabetes, while researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University teamed up to study antimicrobial resistance genes in the gut microbiome of patients with liver cirrhosis.

Simultaneously, scientists in commercial ventures have been creating therapeutics with the intention of preventing and easing disease using changes microbiome. At Finch Therapeutics, the product farthest along in the pipeline is a biological drug for people with recurrent C. Difficile gastrointestinal infections. At Azitra, researchers are studying the skin microbiome in an effort to use commensal bacteria to treat skin infections and reduce mosquito bites.  Additionally, at Locus Biosciences, there is a preclinical program using engineered bacteriophages to treat inflammatory bowel disease.

The study of the microbiome is a revolution in public health. The added information about disease pathogenesis, risk factors, and environmental triggers to microbial changes will allow public health and medical professionals to make evidence-based recommendations to patients and families. The increase in information will pose a new challenge for professionals in implementation and dissemination sciences, testing challenges for microbiologists and bioengineers, analytic challenges for biostatisticians, and more.