How the Trillions of Tiny Organisms That Call Our Bodies Home Can Impact Health

by Bidita Debnath on  July 31, 2016 at 12:03 AM Research News
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Research projects that aim to improve our understanding of the human microbiome have been selected to receive the first round of funding from the University at Buffalo Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM).
How the Trillions of Tiny Organisms That Call Our Bodies Home Can Impact Health
How the Trillions of Tiny Organisms That Call Our Bodies Home Can Impact Health

The five projects, together awarded nearly $200,000, will study how the interplay of the human microbiome - the collection of microorganisms that reside in and on the human body - and the environment affect a person's risk for certain diseases.

The awards are provided through GEM, an interdisciplinary community of UB faculty and staff dedicated to advancing research on the genome and microbiome. Understanding the relationship these microorganisms have with our bodies may enable development of personalized medicine and empower individuals to have greater control over their health.

"There is a lot of evidence that the microbiome is affecting human health, but we don't have a clear idea of how," says Jennifer Surtees, PhD, GEM co-director and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

"That is why we want to push scientists and clinicians from different areas of expertise to work together and drive research that helps us understand what is happening." The pilot grants award researchers from a variety of disciplines up to $50,000 to develop innovative projects focused on the microbiome. The funds support up to one year of research.

GEM is one of UB's three Communities of Excellence, a $9 million initiative to harness the strengths of faculty and staff from fields across the university to confront the challenges facing humankind through research, education and engagement.

Along with Surtees, GEM is led by Timothy Murphy, MD, executive director and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine; and Norma Nowak, PhD, co-director, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and executive director of UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

The funded projects, described below, involve faculty teams from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the School of Dental Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences:

Pilot study of the placental, oral and gut microbiome related to pregnancy outcomes

Recent studies have found that the placenta, once thought to be a sterile environment, may be subject to regular bacterial invasion. Whether this invasion is beneficial or harmful, or both, is unknown.

A team of UB researchers aims to find out. The study is led by Vanessa Barnabei, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; and Robert Genco, DDS, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Oral Biology and director of the UB Microbiome Center.

The research will assess the medical and oral health of women throughout pregnancy and at the time of delivery, then analyze the relationship between microbial patterns and pregnancy outcomes, especially preterm birth.

Other UB investigators include Adina Ionescu, MD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Tammy Thompson, DDS, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatric and Community Dentistry; Karen Falkner, PhD, senior research scientist in the Department of Oral Biology; James Jarvis, MD, clinical professor in the Department of Pediatrics; Michael Buck, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry; and Yijun Sun, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

The Airway Microbiome and Lung Cancer in a COPD Cohort

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have a higher risk for lung cancer, regardless of their age or smoking history.

A group of UB researchers theorize that the risk is due to the interaction between the airway microbiome and the body's immune-inflammatory response, which may be increasing the creation of malignant airway epithelium, a tissue that interacts with respiratory pathogens.

The researchers, led by Manoj Mammen, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, will compare the sputum samples - mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract - of 182 people with COPD that were collected monthly between 1994 and 2014.

The group will identify microbes and interactions that are associated with lung cancer development in participants who developed lung cancer and analyze these samples against those of the people who did not develop the disease.

Other UB investigators include Sanjay Sethi, MD, professor and chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine in the Department of Medicine; Michael Buck, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry; and Yijun Sun, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Protists in the Oral Microbiome

Of all the microbiomes in and on the human body, the one found in the mouth is the most diverse, comprised of bacteria, viruses, fungi and more.

Bacteria are responsible for two of the most common diseases known to man: tooth decay and gum disease. However, scientists have not yet created a method that can reliably predict the severity and onset of dental disease based on the amount of bacteria in the mouth.

Protists, a group of varied single-cell organisms, can significantly impact the size of a bacterial population, but few studies focus on their role in the oral microbiome.

A team of researchers aims to identify and quantify the protist population in the mouth and examine the impact of the bacterial-protist relationship on oral health. The findings could aid in the diagnosis of oral diseases and lead to interventions that prevent disease development.

The study is led by Gerald B. Koudelka, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences; and Mira Edgerton, DDS, PhD, research professor in the Department of Oral Biology.

Gut microbial keystone species for probiotic treatment of obesity and its comorbidities

A group of researchers have a hunch that obesity and our ability to lose weight is tied to the many microorganisms that live in our guts.

A recent UB-led study revealed that the intestines of obese patients contained a severely reduced number of microbes. This internal ecological disaster could be attributed to the lack of keystone species, or microorganisms whose activity and abundance are necessary for the stability of the microbiome community.

The researchers will examine changes in the gut microbiome during the development of obesity in rats fed a high-fat diet to identify keystone species. They will then monitor if increasing keystone species helps reduce weight and reverses the mass extinction of organisms in the gut.

The study is led by Lixin Zhu, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. Additional investigators include Robert Genco, DDS, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Oral Biology; Michael Buck, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry; and Susan Baker, MD, PhD, professor and co-chief of the Division of Gastroenterology in the Department of Pediatrics.

PPI-related gut microbiota dysbiosis role in diabetic nephropathy: A cross-sectional analysis

An imbalance of microorganisms in the gut is linked to increased autoimmune disease and colitis, an inflammation of the colon. Which is bad news for people who use proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), a group of drugs used to treat ulcers and acid reflux.

PPIs cause an imbalance in the gut microbiome by altering stomach acidity and increasing the time it takes microorganisms to move through the colon. Their use has also been shown to increase the progression of chronic kidney disease.

Researchers will compare the gut microbiomes in patients with diabetic kidney disease who either consume or don't consume PPIs to better understand if the altered microbiome has an effect on the disease. The study is led by Rabi Yacoub, MD, and Lee Chaves, PhD, assistant professors in the Department of Medicine.

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