August 31, 2017 / All Stories

Science Rocks! Gut instincts that help us understand our health

The ecosystems within each of us, called the microbiome, may one day paint a picture of our own health.

Science Rocks features AbbVie medical experts who share interesting research in their field and why it matters. In this month's feature, Michael Norton, MPAS, vice president, U.S. medical affairs, AbbVie, highlights the human microbiome and why it may help researchers unlock the keys to human health.

I love what we get to do as medical scientists. Ask questions and formulate tests that might provide us with answers to our questions. This study summarizes an area of science where we have far more questions than answers, it is an area of science and medicine that has simply exploded – The Human Microbiome. The paper is readable and decipherable even to the non-scientist.

I spent much of my career with a perspective that viruses, bacteria and fungi were bad characters. The role of medical professionals (especially infectious disease experts like myself) was to identify the infectious culprit in a sick patient and deploy an eradication technique (usually an antibiotic, antifungal or antiviral).

More recently I’ve come to appreciate that we are more than simply our human genetic material. Humans host multiple, elaborate ecosystems we term the human microbiome. I think all of us are aware we are host to bacteria, fungi and viruses. However, do we appreciate our reliance on our microbial communities for human health and their connection to non-infectious diseases?

Today, the study of these microbial ecosystems is one of the hottest areas of biomedical research. Each of us has unique individual microbial communities that we rely on. They are found on our skin, in our gut, in our respiratory, reproductive and urinary tracts. The area drawing the most interest of late is the gut community. We’ve identified gut microbes as associated with a host of diseases and conditions, including colorectal cancer, depression and other psychiatric disorders, cardiac diseases, diabetes and disorders of metabolism, Parkinson’s disease and many more.

Though in our infancy of understanding the role these microbes may play in these diseases, we are starting to understand that these colonies modulate our immune system, affect human development including cognition, and may play a role in physical function as we age. Already we have some real examples of success with fecal transplants for infectious diarrhea and the deployment of probiotics for preterm infants during their early days of life staying in a neonatal ICU.

A quick scan of displays more than 600 active and recently completed human clinical trials focusing on the human microbiome. Recently my husband and I and our two English Bulldogs volunteered for a clinical trial characterizing gut microbiome in vegans and in humans who live with dogs. To be fair, the dogs probably didn’t know on that particular day our picking up of their poop was for a greater purpose than just to keep the yard clean. But one day because of clinical trials like these, we may have a greater understanding of various pathologic processes, and some new avenues to alter disease courses, disease management and even cure.

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