By Syed Adil Abbas
How often have you seen advertisements for yoghurts, fibre-rich breakfast products or nutritional supplements that “strengthen the body’s natural balance”? We have long known that bacterial culture in our intestinal flora are important for our health but the potential of these microorganisms has now really gained momentum, as advanced medicines based on our microbiome are just around the corner.
The human microbiome is the term for the diverse collection of microorganisms that reside on and in the human body. Research efforts in the area are extensive, with a focus on identifying these microorganisms and their influence on our state of health.
Visionary researchers, pharmaceutical companies and startups are in the process of developing advanced products and forms of treatment based on research in the field. An early example (around 1950s) is Fecal Microbial Transplantation, where intestinal bacteria are transferred to a patient from a healthy donor. The field has developed significantly since then. Technologies under development are drugs based on sophisticated collections of specific health-promoting bacteria and metabolites, better known as postbiotics, that can cure, for example, cancer.
The potential is enormous, and researchers around the globe are working to develop solutions.
For example, it is expected that a microbiome-based drug for the treatment of infectious diseases will soon be in the market. The drug will be able to fight bacteria that is one of the most common causes of diarrhoea.
At the same time, promising studies indicate that the microbiome has an impact on, for example, COVID- 19 in addition on a wide spectrum of other diseases from cancer to mental disorders to autism.
The microbiome has also created a new level of competition between dietary supplements on the one hand and pharmaceuticals on the other. Probiotics, which are described as live bacteria that aim to change the microbial gut flora, have been marketed for years by nutritional companies, while the field is new to the pharmaceutical sector.
While microbiome-based medicines are driving pharmaceutical companies into foodtech and the nutrition industry, innovation in the field of nutrition is increasingly leaning on the pharmaceutical industry. This is reflected in the partnerships that are currently being established across the two industries. A major player Nestle?, for example, has entered into a multi-million dollar strategic collaboration with the Boston-based biotech company Seres Therapeutics.
Renowned venture capital fund Flagship Pioneering, based in Boston, US, was one of the first to see the potential in the field with its investment in Seres Therapeutics way back in 2012.
Another Boston-based venture capital fund called CARB-X has recently invested in the fast-growing Danish company SNIPR BIOME, which will use CRISPR technology to precisely and effectively kill harmful bacteria in the microbiome.
Home to numerous microbiome startups and frontrunners in drug development research and innovation, Boston is undeniably the global centre for biotechnology.
In the future, medicines will be more tailored to you and your unique needs. Researchers have so far worked to characterise an individual person using genetics and environment but with the great knowledge we have about the microbiome, our intestinal flora will also be included in future.
The microbiome stands to bring a new dimension to personalised medicine in relation to both the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of diseases.
Sequencing each patient’s microbiome may in the near future become common practice to help select optimal treatment for the individual, and microbiome-based drugs are expected to be a part of and complement current treatment methods.
Innovation in the field of the microbiome will thus play an important role in accelerating the development of drugs and treatments that reflect our unique genetic profile and lifestyle.
The development work to realise personalised medicine requires strong collaboration across disciplines and building of platforms that require the integration of health data.
Oman can play an essential role, as our health system and nationwide patient data create a basis for a huge data platform that can position Oman as a leading country for data management and clinical microbiome research. Higher educational institutes can be of great help in this regard. We have some of the appropriate tools to unearth what can be described as a biological gold mine.