'The next paradigm shift is going to be the microbiome. Microbes live in us, on us and around us; we can't avoid them and if you tried to sterilize your body you would die. The 100 trillion microbes in our gut provide us with health and nutrition and understanding and harnessing that for medicine I think will have a more profound effect than recombinant DNA because it involves not only humans, but animals, plants and the environment.'
It is fair to say that Second Genome CEO Glenn Nedwin sees almost no limits to the impact on medicine that understanding the human microbiome could have. Speaking to Scrip Senior Writer Emily Hayes at EBD’s Biotech Showcase, Nedwin explains how such a young field of study has come about:
'The whole development of this technology has been in about the last ten years or so with the ability to sequence genomes and sequence information so that you can isolate and understand what bacteria are correlated to what state in any given sample.
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The way people analyse the microbiome is they would typically take a lot of sample and ask the question 'are there certain bacteria that are correlated to metadata in the sample?'. Usually the answer is 'yes' because bacteria are there because they eat substrates that you feed them and they also make certain molecules that are related in the sample. So if you can correlate bacteria to metadata, you can isolate the bacteria and show that they have an effect and this is the core of the microbiome analysis.
From that, if you're talking about human therapeutics, you're isolating bacteria which then can have an effect either to keep you healthy or if your causing you to be sick then you try and inhibit what they do.'
Overcoming the first big challenge
In such a new field of research, there are understandably still major challenges to overcome. Nedwin sees the first big one as being able to identify specific strains of bacteria:
'We all have a lot of strains of bacteria in us - you and I have some of the same bacteria, but mostly they are different. It's the ability to identify individual bacteria that are important for any given state. When you take a probiotic, they are very strain specific, so not all the same genus and species would have the same effect - it's very individual. So the ability to identify individual specific bacteria is very critical to this technology.'
It is on this challenge that Nedwin's company Second Genome is focused; on the ability to 'isolate one bacteria out of the billions in a sample and then ask the question "what does that bacteria make that's either keeping you healthy or causing you to be sick?"'
Once they isolate a single bacteria, they go on to isolate the molecules that bacteria makes, and it is those molecules that are then used as therapeutics. Nedwin explains Second Genome has already had some success with this:
'We have recently discovered 14 novel proteins made from bacteria in your gut that repair your barrier function in your intestine that is there normally to keep you healthy. This is important in many diseases that relate to the gut - for example inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease and liver disease.'
Looking to the future, Nedwin sees potential not just in treating disease, but in human health and wellness as a whole:
'The ability to understand how they microbes in your gut interact with each other and metabolize your food is the key to this in the future. It will be more focused on health, wellness and nutrition. How does diet, lifestyle and wellness affect the different bacteria in your gut? I think that is where the real beauty of this will be in the future. When you have certain foods, you'll know how it effects you and your microbiome.'
This interview was filmed at Biotech Showcase (January 2017).
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