As researchers learn more about the connection between our bacteria and our health, companies are trying to develop therapies that exploit it.
« We humans are born alone. But that solitude is fleeting. Even as we emerge from the womb, we’ve started to accumulate the first few hundred of our lifelong companions—the rich population of microbes that live in and on us. By the time we greet our kindergarten teacher, we are outnumbered: The microbial cells we carry far exceed our own.
These bugs aren’t freeloaders. We maintain a symbiosis with our microbiome that helps keep us healthy. Its job includes breaking down foods our bodies are otherwise unable to digest, metabolizing nutrients into needed vitamins, helping to regulate glucose levels, and sending signals to our immune system.
“We’ve got a hundred trillion bacteria in and on our bodies that have coevolved with us from the dawn of humanity,” notes Peter DiLaura, chief executive officer of the microbiome-focused biotech firm Second Genome. “In many ways, we have colonized the bacteria as opposed to the other way around.”
When the balance in that vibrant community is disrupted—known as “dysbiosis”—the health of its host can suffer. Since the 2008 launch of the Human Microbiome Project, the National Institutes of Health’s effort to map what lives in us and where, the microbiome field has seen an explosion of publications drawing connections between our bacteria and our health.
In many cases, the findings are merely correlations. Researchers still need to prove that an imbalance in the microbial community is a cause or contributor, rather than the consequence, of disease.
But the evidence that our commensal bacteria—our everyday bugs—play a role in disease is compelling enough to lure researchers and investors into developing therapies based on or targeting them. The past five years have seen a proliferation of companies with multiple approaches to leveraging the interaction between our bugs and our bodies.
Efforts include whole-cloth microbiome replacements, rationally designed microbial cocktails, and small molecules that disrupt a specific interaction. Still other groups are considering the complex natural products made by our microbiota.
Overall, some 60 companies are publicly working on microbiome-related projects, with many more under the radar, notes Dirk Gevers, head of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Microbiome Institute. And beyond the flourishing biotech community, big pharma firms are dipping their toes into the water. J&J has made the most significant investment, but nearly every major firm has some effort—either partnerships or internal activities—to develop microbiome-modulating therapeutics.
An Inflection Point
Several technological and clinical advances have converged to produce the current microbiome mania. The most critical development has been the ability to use gene sequencing to quickly identify the microbes camping out in the human body and sometimes deduce their function.