NIH Project Proves That Key To Health Lives Inside Of Us

Ever wondered how our body changes internally when we get a chronic disease?

This NIH project mapped the microbes of hundreds of people for up to 4 years.

Here’s the scoop.

With a 10:1 ratio of microbes to human cells, it’s not uncommon that scientific research is linking health and disease with the microbiomes inside each of us.

In layman’s terms, the solution to health is possibly within ourselves and we CAN do something about it.

One initial way to go about understanding this solution is taking a look at what is potentially the largest study by the US National Institute of Health on the interaction between microbes, humans and disease: ‘The Human Microbiome Project’ (HMP).

*For the sake of this article, microbiome is understood as a collection of microbes.*

The HMP has been in the works since 2007. t has now paved the way to a fascinating question: can we crack the two principle struggles of chronic disease—early diagnosis and treatment—by tinkering with the microbiome?

About the Human Microbiome Project (Phase 2)

The HMP released large datasets and findings on 3 main diseases, based upon research carried out by  three prestigious US universities. Here’s the breakdown.

Diabetes research - carried out by Stanford University

    • Sample: 106 people (divided into three groups: diabetics, prediabetics and healthy subjects)
    • Sample material: quarterly analyses of blood and stool samples, as well as  gut and nose microbiome, for a duration of 4 years.

This study demonstrated that microbiomes tend to remain stable until some external event breaks our immunological balance - say, getting hit by a case of the flu. The group composed of healthy individuals matched their body reactions with their microbiome, setting up a resistant immune defense. However, the other two groups had a relatively slow response and fewer reactions occurred in their microbiome.

These findings could be used to map microbial reactions to other diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.(according to the NIH).

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) research - carried out by Harvard University

    • Sample: 132 people
    • Sample material: blood and stool samples for the duration of 1 year

In this study, the microbiome of individuals with IBD changed significantly when their diseases flared up, yet their microbiomes stayed within normal boundaries when their diseases were dormant. With this in mind, the researchers were able to track which microbial communities in IBD patients are key in the development of the disease.

Pregnancy & Preterm births research - carried out by Virginia Commonwealth University

    • Sample: 1500 women
    • Sample material: vaginal and skin microbiome samples, blood & urine samples, and samples from newborn infants’ microbiome.

Microbes have a crucial symbiotic relationships with our health,andthey even get passed along generations ( even more so than genes!). Looking at female health, the vaginal microbiome has been associated with risk of preterm birth - as it changes in composition during the first trimester.

One section of this study found that a particular type of bacteria (Lactobacillus) tends to dominate the vaginal microbiome at the expense of other microbes. And low levels of this type of bacteria were correlated with premature birth. According to the NIH, this is an important model as it allows us predict risk and accordingly apply  crucial interventions.

Progress, not perfection

Now that the data is in - thanks to the volunteers of this mammoth project - it’s possible to make impactful determinations,like assessing which subsets of a population need to be on the lookout for early diagnosis and treatment for a number of  serious chronic diseases.

Not only chronic diseases need to be checked, psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety are also linked to changes in our microbiome (specially in our gut), and findings from this research can guide interventions for these disorders as well . That being said, medicine is in the midst of a revolution: instead of curing only one part of the body or one symptom at a time, practitioners are addressing patients as microbial wholes. 70% of diseases are caused by lifestyle changes, and it’s important to embrace industry revolutions in line with the ‘Food As Medicine’ movement.

Nowadays, doctors are embracing the idea of  becoming teachers (honoring the latin origin of the word ‘doctor’) and sharing these crucial ideas with their patients in order to prevent & treat a disease. As an example of this, take a look at the countrywide chapters of ‘Walk With A Doc’.

One of the lead researchers from Harvard, Dr. Curtis Huttenhower, said in a statement  he made to Singularity Hub: “Everyone’s a snowflake, as far as the microbiome is concerned”. However, by tracking changes in one person’s multiple individual microbiomes, we could one day catch a multitude of diseases before any other symptoms and stop them!

In fact, even our food can be matched to our snowflake-ish microbiome. One day we hope to make this ambitious dream come true, one tasty meal at a time.

Stay tuned for that and so much more.

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