Standing room only at FASEB microbiome hearing

By | January 21, 2016

On January 13, more than one hundred congressional staffers, scientists, and members of other organizations attended a Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) briefing on Capitol Hill entitled “The Microbiome: Our Own Personal Ecosystem.” The event featured three scientific experts who discussed how the vast community of microorganisms in and on our bodies (the microbiome) relates to human health and disease.

The briefing was organized in cooperation with the office of Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter (NY-25). In a gracious introduction to the event, the congresswoman thanked the scientific community for all that they do and highlighted the importance of microbiology research for the health and welfare of the nation.

Although microbiology is a discipline that has existed for centuries, research on the microbiome in a holistic sense has exploded just within the last few years. Sarah Highlander, PhD, of the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, began the briefing by describing the state of the field and the ways in which technological breakthroughs now allow scientists to identify the microbes that populate different parts of the human body and assess their function. In turn, these insights are beginning to suggest possible new therapies for a range of diseases.

The microorganisms that populate the gut are the subject of particularly intense study due to their implications in digestive system disorders and cancer. In his remarks, Gary Wu, MD, of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania summarized some of these research efforts and the new clinical directions they suggest. By elegantly tying molecular mechanisms and microbiome community composition to the onset of digestive diseases, he demonstrated the potential for dietary interventions to one day help patients with syndromes such as inflammatory bowel disease.

Beyond the gut, the microbiome also has implications for diseases of other organs, including the skin. Heidi Kong, MD, MHSc, of the National Cancer Institute described her team’s work on the skin microbiome and its relationship to dermatitis and immunodeficiency syndromes. By using a combination of microbiology and mouse genetics, Dr. Kong showed that there is a complex interplay between microbial communities and the host immune system, suggesting important new avenues in interdisciplinary research.

The presentations were followed by a question and answer session moderated by FASEB President Parker Antin, PhD. More information about the microbiome can be found in a recent issue of the Breakthroughs in Bioscience series entitled The Human Microbiome: Your Own Personal Ecosystem.