The human microbiome — meaning all of our microbes’ genes — will reshape the consumerization of personalized medicine and diet. Following the human genome project, technological advancements have brought us much closer to acute precision in disease diagnosis and treatment.
The microbiome, considered by some scientists “as a newly discovered and largely unexplored organ,” has the potential to change the way we diagnose and treat the most critical diseases of our time: Crohn’s, diabetes, obesity, various cancers, acute diarrhea, mental disorders and more.
As if the human body isn’t complicated enough, each one of us possesses a unique microbial structure — in the context of drug discovery and nutrition, this will have an impact on how consumers respond to personalized therapeutics and diets. Whereas personalized medicine once felt like a concept from a science fiction movie that was prohibitive because the technology was not yet there, the dream of a microbiome is to make personalized medicine and nutrition accessible to all.
How, then, will companies that play in the health, wellness and nutrition space respond to these technological advancements?
Will we look younger, eat healthier and eliminate chronic diseases one day thanks to the human gut microbiome?
It is evident that we will continue to see a rise of the microbiome applications in human health and more investment dollars being spent on the consumerization of personalized medicine. The pharma industry has explored a number of microbiome topics, but none are more mature than the probiotic and prebiotic segments. The weight control market is worth nearly $60 billion in the U.S. alone — and probiotics contribute more than half of it. Even though probiotics have been marketed for years, the FDA has been vocal about the fact that it has not monitored dietary supplements, and cautions consumers against them.
Despite the large volume of publications, patents and clinical trials that surround probiotics and prebiotics, developing consumer food products that deliver concrete results is a challenge that pharmaceutical market research teams must solve.
For example, ViThera Pharmaceuticals is taking probiotic strains (some clinically tested) and using them to create therapeutics for chronic diseases — but the strains available in food products such as yogurt are more difficult to market. Dannon’s Activia and DanActive lines of yogurt have historically been marketed as good for digestive health and a strong source of probiotics.
How will microbiomes reshape what we eat?
Much of the microbiome focus targets the human gut, where there is a higher density of microbes about which multinational companies are trying to learn more.
Earlier this year, two researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science published the results of a study from the Personalized Nutrition Project that looks at how individuals respond differently to food, based in part on the different microbiomes they host. The results found that there is no item of food whose effects are predictably universal for everyone, and that nutrition recommendations should be personalized.
How, then, do we determine which products are “healthy” if what is healthy for me is not as healthy for you? Many large companies that address a wide consumer base have already noted this — that the future of “mass” is custom — and have started to try to profile groups not based on traditional demographic segmentation, but rather through trying to understand microbiome profiling.
If widely accepted, this new Weizmann study will have a huge impact on the way we think about health and nutrition products, and the companies that make them. It proves to be the case that far more diseases than previously known may result from human interaction with the microbiome inside each one of us.
Diagnostics using the microbiome
In the fight against cancer, early diagnosis is essential to effective treatment. Healthcare companies are pursuing new ways to use the microbiome to streamline cancer diagnostics (as well as other diseases).
One company applying the microbiome to cancer diagnostics is Metabiomics, an early-stage molecular diagnostics company. Metabiomics is focused on creating a non-invasive stool test that analyzes the human gut microbiome for the earlier and more accurate identification of colon polyps and colorectal cancer. The key to Metabiomics’ innovation is its patented MultiTag™ DNA sequencing technology that can analyze the microbiome in ways that were not previously possible.
Microbiome research could pave the road to a new era and approach toward prevention and disease management.
Another field with growing momentum in personalized medicine is Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), a procedure in which fecal matter is collected from a tested donor to treat certain gut disorders. Researchers are exploring FMT’s potential role for treating gastrointestinal diseases, such as IBS and Crohn’s Disease. Getting microbiome-based therapies into the market is challenging, but companies such as Rebiotix, a biotechnology company, is working to commercialize FMT research by creating bacteria and fecal microbiota products by delivering live, human microbes into a patient’s gut to treat diseases.
Developments in personalized medicine and the unique nature of the human microbiome offers an opportunity for Big Pharma to develop devices that no adjacent industry has the expertise to develop.
Microbiome innovation spotlight: Enterome and Evolve Biosystems
Microbes serve to defend against disease and strengthen the immune system, so disease prevention is a natural fit for microbiome innovation. Prevention represents a massive opportunity for healthcare companies — the probiotics market will be worth over $50 billion by 2020.
However, probiotics for digestive health are not the only preventative application for microbiome innovation.
Therapeutics and diagnostics are two key applications for microbiome research.
There may not be any commercial products available at this point, but there are still many healthcare companies innovating in this space. Enterome and Evolve Biosystems are two companies looking to microbiomes to treat and diagnose microbiome-related diseases and conditions.
Enterome, a Paris-based company emerging in the field of the human gut, is looking to treat inflammatory bowel diseases and metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Enterome’s most advanced product, EB 8018 (in the investigational new drug stage of development), takes advantage of the company’s metagenomics platform to target the intestinal microbiome, which plays an important role in the pathogenesis of Crohn’s Disease.
Evolve Biosystems is focused on pregnancy, as infants with higher rates of respiratory, GI disorders and hyper-allergenic responses have been correlated to the gut microbiome of their mothers. The company aims to create a proprietary probiotic-based biotherapeutics system for improved infant microbiome health in the first six months.
Microbiome continues to be a reappearing trend that cross-cuts pharmaceutical, medical, wellness and nutrition, and this study from Weizmann indicates that we are just at the beginning stages of seeing how this will play out across the goods and products we eat. Imagine that one day each one of us will have our own individualized, personalized wellness and diet plans based on our own microbes. Each of us “optimized” by science, and knowing how we will react to new drug therapies and what benefit we will receive from what we ingest.
What to expect in the future
Microbiome research could pave the road to a new era and approach toward prevention and disease management. Healthy individuals, or asymptomatic patients, are still reluctant to take action on prevention and, to some extent, disease interception, especially when symptoms are not yet mature. Companies like Johnson & Johnson and Dannon are leading the market in the microbiome area and we will begin to see more companies innovating in this space in the near future. Microbiome has already impacted consumers’ daily behaviors and has been adopted through various commercialized products.
The challenge remains in moving from well-being to real prevention and disease interception. The reality is that the microbiome has the potential to impact us at any and all stages of our lives, whether it is to diagnose and maintain a healthy microbiota or to diagnose early on to prevent microbe-associated conditions (directly or indirectly) and consequently impact our expected lifespan. The big question is how microbiomes will impact our biological age and its evolution? Beyond living longer, will we look younger, eat healthier and eliminate chronic diseases one day thanks to the human gut microbiome? Our answer is yes.