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Biotech startup's citizen science study will explore how probiotics affect gut bacteria

Biotech startup's citizen science study will explore how probiotics affect gut bacteria
The uBiome team will study the anonymized, aggregate data from customers to determine if there are any correlations between specific probiotics and changes in the gut bacteria profile.

Millions of Americans take probiotic supplements, but until now only relatively small-scale effectiveness studies have been undertaken. Biotech startup uBiome aims to change this by giving thousands of individuals the chance to have their gut bacteria analyzed before they begin taking probiotics, then again once they have done so. Participants will receive a 20 percent discount on two at-home, mail-in test kits so they can explore how their own microbiome changes as a result of taking probiotics. They will also gain exclusive advance access to results from the study.

The microbiome is the term used to describe the extraordinary amount of bacteria in and on the human body. In fact, humans have ten times more bacteria than there are cells in the body itself, amounting to around 100 trillion bacterial cells, with an overall weight of between three and six pounds. Our bacteria play a crucial part in our health. For instance they assist with the digestion of food and help to synthesize vitamins. However, less benign bacteria may contribute to serious issues such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, diabetes, skin conditions, heart health, and autoimmune disorders.

Probiotics are live micro-organisms which are believed to provide health benefits when consumed. Their first use can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, who recognized the potential of fermented dairy products like cheese and yogurt, but it was Russian scientist Élie Metchnikoff who in 1907 proposed that the human gut flora could be modified by replacing harmful microbes with more helpful ones.

Modern probiotic supplements may take the form of capsules or sachets and they can also be found in foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, miso, kombucha, and raw cheese. Although Americans in general have only relatively recently caught on to the potential benefits of probiotics, they have long been popular in Europe and Asia-Pacific (notably Japan). Consumers spend around $28 billion worldwide on probiotics, set to rise to $37 billion by 2018. Research suggests that probiotics may be helpful in treating certain types of diarrhea and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, among other conditions. Many believe they may also have value in managing dozens of other health disorders.

Jessica Richman, co-founder and CEO of uBiome, says the idea for running the probiotics study came from the company’s own customers. “Many have asked us which probiotics work best, or whether they work at all. We want to contribute to the research on how different probiotics affect gut bacteria, so we’re inviting anyone who’s curious about this to join in the study.”

Dr. Zachary Apte, CTO and co-founder of uBiome, says he is extremely optimistic about this ground-breaking new study. “When people’s ‘before and after’ gut samples come in, we’ll analyze them in the lab and run the data through our bioinformatics pipeline. The uBiome data science team will study the anonymized, aggregate data to determine if there are any correlations between specific probiotics and changes in the gut bacteria profile. Interesting discoveries will be released to study participants first, then to the general public.”

uBiome was launched in 2012 by UCSF scientists and Stanford and Cambridge technologists after a crowd-funding campaign raised over $350,000 from citizen scientists, roughly triple the initial goal. uBiome’s mission is to use big data to understand the human microbiome by giving consumers the power to learn about their bodies, perform experiments, and see how current research studies apply to them.

Those interested in participating in the uBiome probiotics study can find details here:

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