If there’s one topic piquing the attention of scientists, nutraceutical formulators, and big pharma alike, it’s the study of the human microbiome. Here lies an area that holds so much promise, from immune- and digestive-health implications to those impacting cognitive health, longevity, and more. But, like all areas of science in the infancy stage, its opportunities are matched only by its challenges.
First, researchers face the inherent challenge of the microbiome’s complexity, including its vast community of microbiota. According to one recent study1, the body actually contains a 1:1 ratio of bacterial to human cells, rather than the widely cited 10:1 ratio; still, researchers also estimated that gut flora occupies a total mass of about 0.2 kg in the body, including as many as 1,000 different species. “Although some technological advancements in metagenomics methods such as high-throughput sequencing is helping make quicker work,” says Alan Rillorta, director of marketing at AIDP Inc. (City of Industry, CA), “as one can imagine, mapping and documenting the benefits of such a large number of microbiota can still take a lot of time.”
But, as Mervyn de Souza, vice president, health and wellness, new product development, innovation and commercial development, at Tate & Lyle (Hoffman Estates, IL) points out, mapping the microbiome is just the beginning of the challenges facing researchers. Beyond mapping, he says, scientists will need to understand how the microbes interact with each other and with the body, and the consequences of these interactions. “That’s compounded by the fact that we have geographical diversity, lifestyle choices, and disease states,” he adds. “When you factor in all the inherent complexities and try to start to strip away what confounds this field, I think a challenge where we will need to have increasing clarity and alignment is in how we study the microbiome.”
Indeed, the methods by which the microbiome is studied represent a challenge noted by John Deaton, vice president of science and technology at Deerland Enzymes & Probiotics (Kennesaw, GA). “It’s important to understand the limits of the techniques we currently use to analyze the microbiome,” he says, “and how to improve and perfect those techniques.”
Right now, for example, de Souza points out that sampling largely consists of fecal analysis, which is a static data point and not always reflective of the highly dynamic reactions happening within the intestines and colon, and even within specific regions of the colon. Ultimately, the limits of sampling can blur the lines between correlation and causation, he says.
“Because this area of study is new and exciting, there are many people rushing to conclusions based on what are essentially preliminary discoveries,” agrees Deaton.
One way that Tate & Lyle is addressing this issue is by making use of a technology called SHIME (Simulator of the Human Intestinal Microbial Ecosystem), which enables researchers to conduct in vitro studies on simulations of the human gut. But this is really just the beginning, as human testing is truly the next frontier.
While Ralf Jäger, scientific advisor at Pharmachem Laboratories (Kearny, NJ), is the first to admit that extensive efforts to characterize the human microbiome, coupled with advances in sequencing technologies, have tremendously increased scientists’ knowledge in this area, it’s a challenge to really take these findings to the next level: “Current challenges include translating all these new findings into safe, clinically validated products with clinically relevant benefits for a healthy population. While the number of well-designed human intervention studies has significantly increased, this seems to currently be the bottleneck to further drive this field.”
Despite the challenges facing this new area of research, the opportunities abound, especially for nutraceutical suppliers and manufacturers.
What’s most exciting about the microbiome is that its composition—healthy or otherwise—seems to have far-reaching effects for the entire body. “In fact, it is starting to become apparent that many diseases or disorders are characterized by a change in microbiome composition, a so-called dysbiosis or dysbiotic state,” says Andrew Morgan, fellow and nutrition and health chief scientist at DuPont Nutrition and Health (Wilmington, DE). Since dysbiosis is often induced by the depletion of a certain microbial species, opportunities exist for nutraceutical brands and manufacturers to tap into these species as next-generation probiotics.
At DuPont, the microbiome modulator of interest is currently human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), complex glycan structures present in human milk and one of the most important modulators when it comes to infant microbiome formation. According to Morgan, they essentially act as prebiotics in that they support the growth of some microbes, but they also prevent the attachment of pathogenic microbes. In response, DuPont is working on bringing to market its first HMO ingredient (2’-fucosyllactose).
- Sender R et al., “Revised estimates for the number of human and bacteria cells in the body,” PLoS Biology. Published online August 19, 2016.
- Han B et al., “Microbial genetic composition tunes host longevity,” Cell, vol. 169, no. 7 (June 15, 2017): 1249-1262