Research into the human microbiome is opening up a new paradigm in preventing and treating chronic diseases. The lack of microbial wealth is a risk factor for developing certain conditions like type-2 diabetes, cancer and obesity, according to experts meeting today and tomorrow at CosmoCaixa at an event held by B·Debate, International Center for Scientific Debate, an initiative of Biocat and the “la Caixa” Foundation, in collaboration with four research institutes: University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia, Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR), IrsiCaixa Institute for Aids Research and the Spanish National Cancer Research Center.
There are 10 bacteria in our body for each cell, a population that is much more relevant to health and illness. These microorganisms even have an impact on diseases that were previously thought to depend only on the human genome. “People with a more metabolically active microbiome that is more genetically varied are healthier,” said VHIR researcher Francisco Guarner.
Since World War II, industrialized societies have developed a series of health problems that weren’t as common previously, like type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions, autism, obesity, colon cancer, etc. The loss of diversity in the human microbiome could explain reactions like allergies or celiac disease, which may be the organism’s response to bacteria from the environment that aren’t normally found in the body.
“Research into the microbiome is at a fascinating point,” said Núria Malats, head of the Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO). This expert in pancreatic cancer believes that bacteria could also help explain some of the molecular mechanisms of cancer and be key for understanding cases in which there is a family history of the disease. “I hope the microbiome will define at-risk populations and prognostic markers for cancer,” she concluded.
In this regard, Malu Calle, head of the Bioinformatics and Medical Statistics Research Group at the University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia, highlighted that biomedical research has moved on from looking only at human DNA to analyzing “the other genome” of the microorganisms that live in our body, thanks to advances in new technology for sequencing genetic material.
In the field of infectious diseases, Director of the IrsiCaixa Institute for Aids Research Bonaventura Clotet noted that, to be effective, the therapeutic HIV vaccine needs “a good microbiome to boost the patient’s immune response.” Studying the microbiome of participants in the clinical trial on the vaccine starting in 2016 will be key to optimizing its efficacy.
The possibility of manipulating and changing the composition of the microbiota associated with diseases opens up a new paradigm for non-invasive treatments, like specific diets, prebiotics or probiotics, and microbiome transplants.
This B·Debate is the first step in making Catalonia an international hub for microbiome research.