May 15, 2019 / All Stories

Diversity: Why it’s important in microbiomes and IBD

The gut microbiome is still a mystery, but scientists already know diversity supports a healthy immune system.

Healthy gut check

Whether it's yogurt, a pill or a drink, probiotics have become part of the health and wellness landscape. But what some might not realize is that probiotics can actually become part of something even more critical to how your digestive system operates. They become part of your own personal microbiome – all the bacteria that make up a particular tissue. With probiotics, that tissue is in your gut.

Brad McRae, Ph.D., director of pharmacology, immunology discovery, AbbVie, is spending a lot of time looking at that environment of bacteria in stomachs, especially in patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Brad McRae, Ph.D., director of pharmacology in immunology discovery, AbbVie, leads a team researching the gut microbiome.

“There’s a huge need we must address,” McRae says. “Drugs that work for some patients don’t work for others. Other patients with IBD respond to treatment initially and then over time can lose response to a medicine. We have to get to the bottom of this mystery and the microbiome may play a role in this.”

Increased microbiome interest

There’s been an increase in research and journals related to microbiomes within the last 10 years, but McRae points to one of the reasons being a “rebranding” of the subject.1

“It was called bacteriology when I was in college, but it’s matured to a point where the industry has more confidence to help us understand its potential,” McRae says. 

AbbVie is also exploring microbiome research. McRae is excited about the early direction of this focus area because it could lead to the development of a targeted therapy through the gastrointestinal tract by evaluating the impact of an individual’s diet, stress, immune system and metabolism on the bacteria in the gut.

Diversity in the gut

In a healthier gut, the bacteria metabolize dietary fiber to short chain fatty acids. Those fatty acids then communicate with epithelial cells and the immune system in your gut. In people with IBD, microbial diversity in the gut is reduced, leading to an imbalance called dysbiosis. The reduction in diversity in the gut microbiome negatively impacts immune regulation, as well as the function of the thin tissue that covers internal organs which can allow for more disease-causing bacteria to overgrow.

“Could we alter the gut microbiome to restore more normal immune regulation and reduce chronic inflammation for someone with IBD?” McRae ponders.

Microbiome research today

While there’s been good progress on scientific research for microbiomes, McRae says there is still a lot to uncover. For example, his team is looking into research involving patients with common metabolic disorders, like diabetes and obesity, where there is opportunity to track patients pre-disease, during and post-disease, to gain more understanding of human-microbiome interactions. Outcomes from these studies may provide valuable insights about how to advance research in IBD.

“By looking at the microbiome of patients who are overweight, who then become obese could give us a better understanding of the role of the microbiome in this process,” McRae says. “Identifying the change in gut physiology could be a game-changer, and that’s why we’re continuing this research that could potentially change how doctors care for IBD patients.”

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