by Lisa Keilhofer

Chances and Challenges in Microbiome Research

microbiome therapy
The experts agreed that microbiome research is still in its infancy.

The November edition of the science magazine “Nature Biotechnology” published an evaluation of 18 microbiome experts on the state of the art of microbiome research, where they shed some light on current trends, chances and problems.

The basis for this summary was a roundtable at New York Academy of Medicine in May 2018, moderated by Gaspar Taroncher-Oldenburg, consultant at Global Engage, and Susan Jones, co-editor of Nature Biotechnology.

Microbiome research is still at its very beginning

The survey that was published, first summarizes the challenges. All experts agreed that microbiome research is still at its very beginning. Many coherences between microbiome and health are still obscure. This is what leaves investors hesitating, as the field is not very well-investigated, in general. While the components of the microbiome are fairly known, research on interdependency between microbiome and the human organism in a whole just got started. However, this is the relevant part of the field, as it promises rewarding outcomes for human health.

So far, research has been in vitro and in animal testing, above all. This is what makes it difficult to transfer the results to the human microbiome without restrictions. Also, by now, the quantity of research is so little, that it is hard to phrase generalizations without a critical number of reproductions. One of the main challenges it therefore the effort to find generalizations for the human system with the help of all neighbouring disciplines, including microbiologists, ecologists, epidemiologists, bioinformatics and statisticians.

In addition to bacteria, Virome should be the focus

A recent tendency is the shift of focus from bacteria to virome in microbiomes. One of the difficulties here is that viruses do not have a marker gene like bacteria or fungi do. Also, at this point the experts stressed the fact that microbiome research is still at its very beginning. Frequently, statistically reliable outcomes are missing, for instance on tolerance of procedures.

Even the lungs have a microbiome

Besides, another shift of focus was picked out as a central issue: While current research focusses mainly on the gut microbiome, because of its easy accessibility and high density, future research should put the lung, skin or oral microbiomes into the center of attention. The lung being not a totally sterile environment is a relatively new finding and specific data collection has been almost completely neglected, so far. As mentioned, the challenge here is the more difficult accessibility and the lower density of bacteria and virome. Drawing conclusions between microbiome and genome would be the final step – always aiming to develop appropriate pro- and antibiotics, of course.

First steps into this direction have been taken. Also, a shift of method from pure descriptive recording and empirical testing towards more complex, generally applicable formula is intended.

Experts see a big opportunity in the big data technology

A great limitation to this goal is the technical side. The experts are hoping for progress with the help of the emerging big data technology in the nearer future. Here, a big chance for microbiome research is seen. This could also be the long-awaited door opener to moving microbiome therapy into the clinic. The panel agrees on rather prevention than treatment of conditions. Of course, this is still way in the future. But the meeting proved that microbiome research is on a promising path.

Lisa Keilhofer
Lisa Keilhofer

Lisa Keilhofer studied at the University of Regensburg. She works in internationalization and as a freelance editor.

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