New Research Center to Explore Health Effects of Microorganisms

Posted: January 8, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Marjorie Musick

The human body contains billions of microorganisms. Microbial cells in the human gut are estimated to outnumber human cells by 10 to one in healthy adults, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but very little is known about the ways in which these minute life forms influence health and disease.

A new molecular ecology facility at Mason, the MicroBiome Analysis Center (MBAC), is attempting to scout this uncharted territory and map the world that these bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa inhabit within us.

Their effect on human health will be a major research focus at the center where investigators will explore microbial imbalances on or within the gut, mouth, respiratory tract and urinary and reproductive systems.

“It’s a new tactic to actually characterize the human microbiome (or population of microorganisms living within the human body) and try to correlate it with disease states and changes within the immune system,” says Patrick Gillevet, the MBAC’s director and associate professor in Mason’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy.

“This center will allow us to sequence and characterize these microorganisms in order to study their relationship to diseases such as obesity, cancer and irritable bowel syndrome.”

Patrick Gillevet
Patrick Gillevet
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Gillevet, who has been studying the genes of microbes since 1998, developed and patented a technology for genomic sequencing in 2006 called Multitag Pyrosequencing (MTPS) that allows researchers to examine, count and barcode hundreds of thousands of microorganisms per day within samples taken from various ecological systems, including the human body. MTPS will serve as the backbone of the center’s research efforts.

“Multitag Pyrosequencing is revolutionizing the study of microbial communities,” says Gillevet.

“Before this technology was developed, we would have been hard-pressed to identify 200 microbes per sample. Now, we are identifying 50,000 or 60,000 microbes per sample. We can literally do in an afternoon what it took us 10 years to do in the past.”

Supported by more than $1 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Defense and NIH, Gillevet’s team is currently collaborating with researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to chart the presence of microorganisms in patients suffering from breast cancer, Crohn’s Disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cirrhosis of the liver and HIV.

The center will look at the correlation between a patient’s disease and the types and quantities of microbes in his or her body.

“We need to figure out what came first, the chicken or the egg,” says Gillevet.

“Did the bacteria change and upset the immune system and cause the cancer? Or did the cancer start, upset the immune system and then upset the bacteria? Or did the immune system get upset and affect both? That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

He believes the answer lies in computational science. He has partnered with John Grefenstette, professor in Mason’s Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Department, and Huzefa Rangwala, assistant professor in Mason’s Department of Computer Science, to develop software that will bridge this gap between ecology and medicine.

“It is clear from the current literature and our own collaborative work that the bacterial community in the gut is intimately connected to the immune system function and health of the human organism,” says Gillevet.

“Finding the microbes responsible for particular diseases may increase the likelihood of developing new diagnostic tests and treatments for them.”

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