So far, 2012 has been the year of the human microbiome. That's the set of bacteria, viruses and fungi living on our skin, up our noses and in our mouths and guts. The subject made national news in June when the Human Microbiome Project, a massive, NIH-funded effort to catalog the mix of bugs living on and in Americans, reported its first results.
With the typical set of bugs now outlined, researchers are searching for the bug profiles that correlate with diseases. New understanding of our complex microbial communities is laying the foundation for advances in the treatment of infectious, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, including the process by which inflammation contributes to cancer. The work could even make possible prescription fecal transplants that replace disease-causing microbiomes.
Against this backdrop, the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center chose "cancer and the microbiome" as the theme for its recent research retreat. The Mix interviewed several retreat presenters, each a nationally recognized expert in the area, and will feature the chats as a podcast series over the next few weeks.
Our guest today is Casey Morrow, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology and the retreat’s organizer.
Show notes from the podcast:
0:45 We would be unable to digest most of our food without our microbiome — and it may have helped to establish our immune system. The wrong bugs, though — or our immune system’s reaction to them — also help to drive many infectious and inflammatory diseases, possibly including heart disease and cancer.
1:25 The microbiome is a name for the complex communities of microbes found on and in the various habitats around the body. Over the last 10 years, the field has found that a person's mix of bugs can be extremely helpful or dangerous to them.
2:24 Human microbes have become a subject of greater interest with the realization that we exist in symbiosis with them; that they are a part of us.
2:57 Along with aiding in the digestion of food, these bacteria, viruses and fungi have a complex and ancient relationship with our immune system. In one sense, they teach our immune system how to tell the difference between helpful and destructive bugs, and whether or not to ramp up an immune response. The latter is a crucial decision, because immune responses fight disease in the right context, but they also cause unwanted inflammation when they misfire.
3:12 The field has come to recognize that inflammation caused by an overactive immune system, sometimes in reaction to helpful gut bacteria, contributes to a variety of diseases, including cancer. Beyond triggering immune responses out of turn, some bugs may also release compounds themselves that damage DNA and contribute to cancer risk.
4:16 The team organized this retreat based on the UAB Cancer Center's strategic plan, which reflects work in many labs showing that a person's bug profile not only contributes to inflammation, cancer and obesity, but that all of them influence each other.
5:19 Dr. Morrow and colleagues established a UAB Microbiome Core within the Cancer Center with the help of Cancer Center director Edward Partridge, M.D., but the core is in the process of expanding into a university-wide effort.
6:42 The core is set up such that UAB researchers can easily add microbiome analysis to their ongoing studies of many diseases with a "one-stop shopping" approach. Researchers can bring in samples of microbes from mouths, guts or other habitats in patients or study animals, and the team will analyze the microbiomes. After core scientists prepare the DNA for the client, they hand it off to Michael Crowley, Ph.D., and his team at UAB's Heflin Center for Genomic Science. These researchers determine the sequences of the DNA chains in the bug genetic material, and then send the vast amounts of genetic data they generate through high-speed sequencing techniques to Eliott Lefkowitz, Ph.D., who leads UAB's Molecular and Genetic Bioinformatics Facilty. His team then provides the client with the identities of the bugs in the sample.
8:19 As they conduct clinical trials, researchers interested in diabetes, cancer and obesity can collect samples, store them for later analysis with the microbiome core, and look for associations between microbiomes and pathology. Such analyses promise to help track microbial communities in a given person as he or she goes from health to any given disease state.
9:43 The consensus now is that microbial communities are actively driving health and disease. We even have currently available cultures, yogurts and pills that change the microbiome in the mouth or gut to improve health, part of a billion-dollar industry.
11:25 Presenters at the UAB symposium were among the pioneers that showed the differences between the gut microbiomes of obese and thin people. The UAB microbiome core works closely with UAB's Gnotobiotic and Genetically Engineered Mouse Core, led by Casey Weaver, M.D. Gnotobiotic mice are genetically engineered and raised to have no gut microbiome, and fascinatingly, can be made to gain significant weight if the microbial gut community from an obese human is transplanted into them.
12:29 The gnotobiotic facility offers a system for studying how you can transplant microbiomes from healthy individuals to obese ones, which becomes vital when the goal is to perform such transplants in humans a few years down the road.