Microbiome: The Next Frontier in Human Health

Thursday, December 24, 2015

At the beginning of every episode of the sci-fi television series Star Trek, William Shatner repeated the famous phrase, “Space: the final frontier.” However, in all of Star Trek’s 79 episodes, Captain James T. Kirk and crew never encountered anything like the number and diversity of species that exists within the human microbiome, a collection of microorganisms that live everywhere in and on our body and outnumber our cells almost ten to one.

Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, our scientists must slowly piece together whether these newfound species are friend or foe. And if foe, how they can be overcome, subdued, or convinced to become good guys. As a scientific discipline, understanding the human microbiome is clearly more “sci” than “fi”—but the unfolding story of our symbiotic relationship with microbes in every niche of the human body currently reads more like it came from the world of fiction.

The latest research in this area suggests that our relationship with these microbes is essential to maintaining good health and that dysregulation of the microbiome is associated with disease. By analyzing the collective genome of the microbes in their natural environment—a field known as metagenomics—our scientists are discovering that the microbiome may have untapped potential to be manipulated in ways that might treat or even cure diseases.

In 2008, the IRP was part of an NIH-wide five-year initiative to analyze the microbiome and its role in human health and disease called the Human Microbiome Project (HMP). It showed us that the microbiome is far from isolated to just the gut, and includes the skin, mouth, intestines, nose, and genitals, all of which have unique microbial profiles that are essential to maintaining the health of those body parts.

IRP researchers continue to build upon those findings:

  • Heidi Kong, M.D., M.H.Sc., uncovered major differences in the skin microbiome between patients with eczema and healthy subjects, suggesting that an imbalance in microbial diversity may contribute to disease.
  • The immunoepidemiology lab of James Goedert, M.D., has launched a study to investigate what role the fecal microbiome may have on the development of cancer.
  • Niki Moutsopoulos, D.D.S., Ph.D., and team are investigating what impact the oral microbiome may have on chronic oral inflammatory conditions.

The HMP was so successful in characterizing the thousands of microbial communities coexisting on our bodies that, in 2013, the NIH launched a second phase of the project: the Integrative Human Microbiome Project (iHMP). The iHMP will collect datasets from three different microbiome populations to further characterize biological properties of the microbiome in a natural environment and in disease states, including pre-term birth, inflammatory bowel disease, and prediabetes. These massively complicated datasets are mined using state-of-the-art, high-throughput computers that—like the IRP model of collaboration and shared resources—are connected through an interdisciplinary effort between teams of investigators at different academic institutions.

The ultimate goal of the iHMP is to understand how a healthy microbiome functions over time and how changes in the biome can lead to disease. It’s the job of our researchers, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life… and to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Ok, that last bit may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s certainly not hyperbole to say that the microbiome is the next major frontier of health science.

In the video below, take a peek into the lab of Yasmine Belkaid, Ph.D., whose IRP team explores the fine balance that exists between microbes and their hosts:

Category: Science