A scholar of science, circa 2218, might look back on this era and wonder why, all of a sudden, scientists became so obsessed with human stool. Or more accurately, the microorganisms therein.
Although every human is nearly identical genetically, each person carries around a massively different variety of microbial genes from bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea.
This scholar might find, for example, the seven-fold increase in PubMed articles on "gut microbiome" in the half-decade between 2012 and 2017; the plastic detritus of millions of fecal sample collection kits, and evidence that freezers in research labs worldwide had filled up with fecal samples. What's happened?
Human genome science has led to some important medical insights over time. Now it's moving over for the microorganisms. Because, although every human is nearly identical genetically, each person carries around a massively different variety of microbial genes from bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea—genes that are collectively called the microbiome.
Thinking that more knowledge about the gut microbiome is going to solve every problem in medicine is pure hubris. And yet these microorganisms seem to be at the nexus of humans and our environment, capable of changing us metabolically and adjusting our immune systems. What might they have the power to do?
Here are five of the most important questions that lie ahead for microbiome science.
1) What makes a gut microbiome 'healthy'?
The words "healthy microbiome" should raise a red flag. Because, currently, if scientists examine the gut microbial community of a single individual they have no way of knowing whether or not it qualifies as healthy—nor even what parameter to look at in order to find out. Is it only the names of the bugs that matter, or is it their diversity? Alternatively, is it function—what they're genetically equipped to do?
The words "healthy microbiome" should raise a red flag.
The focused efforts of the Human Microbiome Project were supposed to accomplish the apparently simple task of defining a healthy microbiome, but no clear answers emerged. If researchers could identify the parameters of a healthy microbiota per se, they might have a way to know whether manipulations—from probiotics to fecal transplant—were making a difference that could lead to a good health outcome.
2) Diet can manipulate gut microbes. How does this affect health?
"Many kinds of bacteria in our gut, they're changeable by changing our diet," says Liping Zhao of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, citing two large population studies from 2016. What's murkier is how this effects a change in health status.
Zhao's research focuses on making the three-way link between diet, gut microbiota, and health outcome. Meanwhile, researchers like Genelle Healey at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are working to track how the gut microbiome and health respond to a dietary intervention in a personalized way.
Knowing how the diet-induced changes in gut microbes affected health in the long term would allow every individual to toss out the diet books and figure out a dietary pattern—probably as personal as their gut microbes—that would result in their best health down the line.
If scientists could find how to harness one or more microorganisms to have specific effects on the immune system, they might be able to crack a new class of therapeutics.
3) How can gut microorganisms be used to fine-tune the immune system?
Many chronic diseases—autoimmune conditions but also, according to the latest research, obesity and cardiovascular disease—are immune mediated. Kenya Honda of Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo, Yasmine Belkaid of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), June Round at University of Utah, and many other researchers are chasing the ways in which gut microbes 'talk' to the immune system. But it's more than just studying certain bugs.
"It's an incredibly complex situation and we can't just label bugs as pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. It's very context-dependent," says Justin Sonnenburg of Stanford. But if scientists could find how to harness a microorganism or group of them to have specific effects on the immune system, they might be able to crack a new class of therapeutics that could change the course of immune-mediated diseases.
4) How can a person's gut microbiome be reconfigured in a lasting way?
Measures of the adult microbiome over time show it has a high degree of stability—in fact, it can be downright stubborn. But a new, stable gut microbial ecology can be achieved when someone receives a fecal transplant for recurrent C. difficile infection. Work by Eric Alm of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and others have shown the recipient's gut microbiota ends up looking more like the donor's, with engraftment of particular strains.
But what are the microorganisms' 'rules of engraftment'? Knowing this, it might be possible to intervene in a number of disease-associated microbiome states, changing them in a way that changed the course of the disease.
Is the infant microbiome, as shaped by birth mode and diet, responsible for health issues later in life?
5) How do early-life shapers of the gut microbiome affect health status later on?
Researchers have found two main factors that appear to shape the gut microbiome in early life, at least temporarily: mode of birth (whether vaginal or Cesarean section), and early life diet (whether formula or breast milk). These same factors are associated with an increased risk of immune and metabolic diseases. So is the infant microbiome, as shaped by birth mode and diet, responsible for health issues later in life?
Brett Finlay of the University of British Columbia has made these 'hygiene hypothesis' compatible links between the absence of certain bacteria in early life and asthma later on. "I think the bugs are shaping and pushing how our immune system develops, and if very early in life you don't have those things, it goes to a more allergic-type immune system. If you do have those bugs it gets pushed towards more normal," he says. The work could lead to targeted manipulation of the microbiome in early life to offset negative health effects.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”