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Foodie Gift Giving: A Stool Sample? (Body Eclectic Part 3)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 23, 2013

How Our Microbes Keep Us HealthyThe public has also embraced the microbiome, beginning a few years ago when researchers at Washington University noticed a curious fact about obesity: Fat mice have more of a bacterial group called Firmicutes in their guts and thin mice have more Bacteroidetes. Feed the mice the same diet, and the ones with more Firmicutes extract more calories and lay on more fat. When the same differences showed up in humans, it seemed to explain the common complaint of many overweight people that they get fat just smelling food their skinny friends gorge on with impunity.

Such studies have stirred up remarkable enthusiasm in a subject matter most people would once have dismissed as yucky, gross or worse. It’s as if people suddenly loved Gulliver’s Travels for the passage where Jonathan Swift depicts a scientifically inclined student trying to return human excrement to the foods from which it originated.

This past winter, two rival efforts invited microbiome enthusiasts to submit their own fecal, oral, genital or skin samples for microbial analysis, and each raised more than $300,000 from crowd-funded donations typically under $100 apiece. The first effort, managed by Rob Knight’s Colorado lab and called American Gut, emphasized participation by top scientists in the field. Prevention magazine ranked the project’s $99 “map of your very own gut bacteria ecosystem” among its top 10 foodie gifts for the holidays. (For romantics, the $189 “Microbes for Two” package included analysis of a stool sample for both you and your partner. Or your dog.)

Microbiome excitement has spread to venture capitalists, who have so far invested in at least four start-ups with the aim of developing new microbiome-focused drugs and diagnostic tools. At Second Genome outside of San Francisco (motto: “The most important genome in your body may not be your own”), chief executive Peter DiLaura has nearly $10 million in seed money and a plan to get to clinical testing within three years for drugs targeted at common conditions like ulcerative colitis, where the micro­biome probably plays a causative role.

That timetable may seem optimistic, especially given that research on the first genome—that is, the human genome—has barely begun to produce the abundance of new therapies originally predicted. But at least in theory it ought to be easier to manipulate individual microbes. According to researchers in the field, several major drug companies working on diabetes and obesity now have research units dedicated to the microbiome. The big toothpaste and mouthwash companies are also investigating microbial methods to prevent tooth decay.

Even before such products come to market, merely being able to characterize a person’s microbiome may yield direct medical benefits. Research suggests that each of us has a distinct microbial fingerprint, with individual variation based on diet, family, medical history, ethnic or regional background, and a host of other factors. These differences seem to matter in ways both large and small. For instance, a person may have certain gut bacteria that alter the effect of a drug—even blocking a remedy as common as acetaminophen, the pain-relieving ingredient in Tylenol. At present, doctors sometimes fumble from one prescription to the next before finally hitting on the drug that helps a given patient. The ability to consult that patient’s microbiome profile could make it easier to get there on the first try.

Even so, some researchers worry that the microbiome movement may be promising too much too soon.

One Response to “Foodie Gift Giving: A Stool Sample? (Body Eclectic Part 3)”

  1. […] Foodie Gift Giving: A Stool Sample? (Body Eclectic Part 3) Her Last Chance at a Baby (Body Eclectic–Part 1) […]

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