Innovation in the human microbiome

31st May 2018 by Akash Patel

The human body contains trillions of micro-organisms, with an estimated 3.8∙10^13 bacterial cells accounting for up to 0.2 kg of body weight (Sender, R. et al., 2016). These microbes live within us in a symbiotic relationship and research has led to the understanding that they prove vital to our physiological functions. As vital as they are in remaining healthy, they are highly associated with causing or contributing to the development of many chronic diseases. These microbes are collectively known as ‘the human microbiota’ and the ‘microbiome’ is the term which describes the genes of all these microbes. The microbiome is unique to every individual and the extent to which it affects vital bodily functions is only just beginning to be really understood.

It was thought that the bacteria present in the gut mostly aid with digestion; they are now understood to play a role in cancer, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), arthritis and type 2 diabetes, amongst other diseases (Thomas, S. et al., 2017). Surprisingly, bacteria growing in oral cavities have been found to be associated with the development of cardiovascular disease (Hajishengallis, G., 2015). These associations are becoming increasingly studied and as a result there is a wave of innovation in biotechnology to address these challenges and correct the dysbiosis (microbial imbalances on or inside the body), that is often found to be associated with many diseases.

 The revised estimates for the number of human and bacterial cells in the body are 3.0∙10^13 and 3.8∙10^13 respectively; this is still more than the number of stars in the milky way (2.5∙10^11)!

The revised estimates for the number of human and bacterial cells in the body are 3.0∙10^13 and 3.8∙10^13 respectively; this is still more than the number of stars in the milky way (2.5∙10^11)!

New players in the microbiome

There are several notable start-ups emerging in the microbiome space that are producing innovative technologies to address the challenges of dysbiosis.

Microbiotica is a spin-out of the Sanger Institute focusing on how the microbiome can be used to combat disease and they have developed a platform which cultures, characterises and phenotypes the patients gut bacteria. Their aim is to help identify the association between the bacteria present in the gut and their function to develop live bacterial therapeutics and biomarkers.

Early-stage start-up Microinventa, a company that has emerged from Deep Science Ventures, has developed a high-throughput culturomics platform to predict and isolate valuable bacterial strains from the human gut. By doing this they will identify how to engineer a healthier gut microbiome and prevent the dysbiosis associated with complex diseases such as IBD and cancer.

Another microbiome start-up, BioMe, recent winner of the IMAGINE IF! Global accelerator, have developed a pill-sized medical device called ‘Biocapture’ for targeted and non-invasive sampling of the human gut microbiome. In sampling the gut microbiome, they will be able to identify dysbiosis and microbial imbalances shown to be associated with susceptibility to many common diseases.

Finally, fighting the antimicrobial resistance crisis - Rapifage, another start-up from Deep Science Ventures, aims to address this at the primary care level, and has produced a novel phage-based diagnostic that can discern between bacterial and viral infections in sub-minute times. They aim to address the incorrect prescription of antibiotics in the GP surgery, a significant contributory factor to the antimicrobial crisis.

The human microbiome is the world of microbes, microbial genetics and how they influence our physiological function in health and disease. Coupled with the enormous challenge of antimicrobial resistance threatening global populations, the number of microbiome start-ups will only increase making this an incredibly exciting and dynamic area of biotech.

Work cited

Sender, R., Fuchs, S., Milo, R.. (2016). Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body. PLoS Biology. 14 (8)

Thomas, S., Izard, J., Walsh, E., Batich, K., Chongsathidkiet, P., Clarke, G., Sela, et al.. (2017). The Host Microbiome Regulates and Maintains Human Health: A Primer and Perspective for Non-Microbiologists. Cancer Research. 77 (8), 1783–1812.

Hajishengallis,G.. (2015). Periodontitis: from microbial immune subversion to systemic inflammation. Nature Reviews Immunology. 77 (8), 30-44.