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The University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences and UPMC are collaborating on a joint venture dedicated to better understanding the trillions of microbes that form an ecosystem inhabiting the human body, called the microbiome.
To be announced today as a participant at the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington, DC, Pitt’s Center for Medicine and the Microbiome brings together scientists and clinicians to explore how the microbiome affects health and disease—and how it can be harnessed to develop new therapies to help patients. The initiative and its research and clinical partners aim to advance the understanding of microbiome behavior and enable protection and restoration of healthy microbiome function, including investigations of fundamental principles that govern microbiomes across diverse ecosystems and development of new tools to study microbiomes.
“The very nature of the microbiome involves many organs and affects many areas of medicine—from infectious disease, to cancer biology, to inflammatory bowel disease, to immunology—requiring collaboration between the many disciplines of science and medicine, something UPMC and Pitt have a proven track record of achieving,” said Mark T. Gladwin, MD, chair of medicine and Dr. Jack D. Myers Professor of Internal Medicine at Pitt.
The Center will be led by Alison Morris, MD, MS, who holds the UPMC Chair for Translational Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine in Pitt’s School of Medicine and attended the White House event.
“Our bodies are not ours alone. A great variety of microscopic organisms call us home and, in turn, they perform critical functions for us, including digesting our food, modulating inflammation and fighting off bad bugs,” said Dr. Morris, also a professor of medicine in the Pitt Department of Medicine’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, with a joint appointment in the Department of Immunology. “We expect our Center for Medicine and the Microbiome to usher in a new era of care, with what we learn leading to therapies for diseases and conditions ranging from obesity to cancer.”
The Center for Medicine and the Microbiome is a joint venture, with more than $5 million in funding provided by Pitt’s Department of Medicine, UPMC and UPMC Enterprises. The Pitt School of Dental Medicine and uBiome, Inc., a microbial genomics company based in San Francisco, also have contributed to Center activities.
The center will enable several innovative projects. For example, in collaboration with Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine, the microbiomes of approximately 3,500 saliva samples previously collected with patient permission can be examined and anonymously linked to patient medical records to yield what is expected to be the largest study of human genetics and microbial communities.
In the near future, the center will launch the Pittsburgh Biome Project to crowd-source a large collection of gut microbiome samples from local community members. Those who participate could get an analysis of their own microbiome and contribute to a research project that would analyze the microbiome in relationship to current and future health. This project will establish a large biorepository of clinical samples that will be linked, with the participants’ consent, to electronic health records. It will be the first of its kind to engage a local community in large-scale microbiome research related not only to current health and disease but also to future disease risk.
“Having such a biorepository and database here in Pittsburgh, where we have such strong academic and medical resources, is going to be an incredible asset,” said Arthur S. Levine, MD, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine. “This initiative will enable studies that could explore the impact of the microbiome on cancer, lung conditions, hypertension, heart disease, malnutrition and myriad other conditions. We may discover that the balance of microbes in the gut can be adjusted to fight obesity, or that our microbiome could help or hinder certain cancers or the response of cancer to therapy. Our discoveries could lead to clinical trials that result in therapies to help people around the world.”
Other key research areas the center intends to tackle include the development and treatment of drug-resistant pathogens and the use of fecal transplantation for various diseases, such as Clostridium difficile colitis. UPMC’s existing fecal transplant program will become an important contributor to Pitt’s Center for Medicine and the Microbiome.
The center also will provide collaboration opportunities to give Pitt scientists access to microbial analyses previously unavailable to them.
“Sequencing technologies have evolved rapidly over the past several years and can generate large amounts of data on microbiome diversity, but unfortunately these types of tests are too expensive and the analytics too complex for many researchers,” said John W. Mellors, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in Pitt’s Department of Medicine. “We intend for our new center to facilitate this type of testing, incorporating microbiome research into existing studies and supporting development of novel studies.”