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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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German Scientists Train Dogs to Detect the Presence of COVID-19 in Saliva Samples; Can a Canine’s Nose Be as Accurate as Clinical Laboratory Testing?

Though only in the pilot study phase, results correlate with earlier studies where both dogs and humans were able to “smell” specific diseases in people

Man’s best friend has risked life and limb to save humans for centuries. Now, researchers in Germany have discovered that pooches may be useful in the fight against COVID-19 as well, along with the added benefit that such testing would be non-invasive. In fact, some people believe disease-sniffing dogs may give clinical laboratory testing a run for its money.

Further, even if this approach were not warranted as a clinical diagnostic procedure, trained dogs could be deployed at airports, train stations, sporting events, concerts, and other public places to identify individuals who may be positive for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness. Such an approach would make it feasible to “screen” large numbers of people as they are on the move. Those individuals could then undergo a more precise medical laboratory test as confirmation of infections.

In cooperation with Bundeswehr, the German Armed Forces, scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover (TiHo), along with scientists from the Hannover Medical School and the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, carried out a pilot study with eight specialized sniffer dogs from the Bundeswehr to find people infected with the coronavirus.

After only one week of training, the dogs were able to accurately detect the presence of the infection 94% of the time. 

According to a live interview, which featured Holger Volk, PhD, Department Chair and Clinical Director of the Small Animal Clinic at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover and Maren von Köckritz-Blickwede, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry of Infections and Head of Scientific Administration and Biosafety at the Research Center for Emerging Infections and Zoonoses at TiHo, “The samples were automatically distributed at random and neither the dog handlers involved nor the researchers on site knew which samples were positive and which were used for control purposes. The dogs were able to distinguish between samples from infected (positive) and non-infected (negative) individuals with an average sensitivity of 83% and a specificity of 96%. Sensitivity refers to the detection of positive samples. The specificity designates the detection of negative control samples.

The researchers published their findings, “Scent Dog Identification of Samples from COVID-19 Patients—A Pilot Study,” in the open access, peer-reviewed journal BMC Infectious Diseases in July.

In their published study, the authors wrote, “Within randomized and automated 1,012 sample presentations, dogs achieved an overall average detection rate of 94% with 157 correct indications of positive, 792 correct rejections of negative, 33 false positive and 30 false negative indications.” They concluded, “These preliminary findings indicate that trained detection dogs can identify respiratory secretion samples from hospitalized and clinically diseased SARS-CoV-2 infected individuals by discriminating between samples from SARS-CoV-2 infected patients and negative controls. This data may form the basis for the reliable screening method of SARS-CoV-2 infected people.”

In the live interview, Dr. Köckritz-Blickwede said, “We think that this works because the metabolic processes in the body of a diseased patient are completely changed,” adding, “We think that the dogs are able to detect a specific smell of the metabolic changes that occur in those patients.”

Holger Volk, PhD and medical dog an Australian Shepherd
“People have not really realized the potential the dog could have to detect disease from lung-diseased patients,” said Holger Volk, PhD (above with his dog Jo), Department Chair and Clinical Director of the Small Animal Clinic at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover and one of the authors of the paper, in a live interview. (Photo copyright: University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover.)

Using Dogs as Part of Clinical Laboratory Testing

The American Kennel Club (AKC) estimates that a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than that of humans. This gives dog’s the ability to detect diseases in early stages of development.

“The next steps will be that we try to differentiate between sputum samples from COVID patients versus other diseases, like, for example from influenza patients,” said Köckritz-Blickwede. “That will be quite important to be able to differentiate that in the future.” 

“This method could be employed in public areas such as airports, sport events, borders or other mass gatherings as an addition to laboratory testing, helping to prevent further spreading of the virus or outbreaks,” the live interview description states.

During a pandemic, employers might be able to use dogs to screen employees as they arrive for work. Dogs also could be used as an alternative or in addition to clinical laboratory testing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But more work must be done.

“What has to be crystal clear is that this is just a pilot study,” said Volk.  “So, there is a lot of potential to take this further to really make it possible to use these dogs in the field.”

An article on the VCA Hospitals website, titled, “How Dogs Use Smell to Perceive the World,” states that dogs devote much of their brain power to the interpretation of smells and they have more than 100 million sensory receptor sites located in their nasal cavity.

By contrast, humans have only six million sensory receptor sites in their nasal cavity. The area of a dog’s brain that is dedicated to the analysis of odors is about 40 times larger than the comparable part of a human brain and dogs are capable of detecting odors thousands of times better than humans.

The article also further explains how dog’s olfactory glands are very unique when compared to other animals and humans. “Unlike humans, dogs have an additional olfactory tool that increases their ability to smell. Jacobson’s organ is a special part of the dog’s olfactory apparatus located inside the nasal cavity and opening into the roof of the mouth behind the upper incisors. This amazing organ serves as a secondary olfactory system designed specifically for chemical communication.

“The nerves from Jacobsen’s organ lead directly to the brain and are different from the other nerves in the nose in that they do not respond to ordinary smells. In fact, these nerve cells respond to a range of substances that often have no odor at all. In other words, they work to detect “undetectable” odors.”

VCA Hospitals is a chain of veterinary hospitals with more than 1,000 facilities located in 46 states and five Canadian provinces. 

C. diff-sniffing Beagle Dog
Could dogs help prevent hospital-acquired infections? It is an interesting question, and one that has been asked before. In “C. diff-sniffing Beagle Dog Could Lead to Better Infection Control Outcomes in Hospitals and Nursing Homes,” January 2013, Dark Daily reported on a beagle named Cliff (above), which could sniff out Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a potentially deadly bacteria. In a study conducted by researchers at Vrije University Medical Center (VUMC) in Amsterdam, Cliff detected C. diff in both stool samples and the air surrounding infected patients in hospitals. In one test, Cliff correctly identified 50 out of 50 stool samples that were C. diff positive. He correctly identified 47 of 50 negative samples. That’s a sensitivity rate of 100% and a specificity rate of 94%. (Photo copyright: ABC News.)

Dogs are amazing, that’s for sure. But for canines to become widely used to detect infections there would have to be a way to validate each dog’s ability to detect diseases, so that the diagnostics would be consistent across all the dogs being used.

So, while there appears to be potential for utilizing a dog’s uncanny sense of smell to detect disease—including COVID-19—more research is needed before development of clinical testing can take place.  And, perhaps, a set of canine billing codes.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Dogs Are Able to Detect Presence of Coronavirus by Sniffing Human Saliva, New Study Finds

Trained Dogs Were able to Sniff Out Covid-19 Infections with 94% Accuracy: Study

Scent Dog Identification of Samples from COVID-19 Patients – a Pilot Study

Dogs Detecting Disease: Meet America’s Cancer-Sniffing Canines

How Dogs Use Smell to Perceive the World

Live Interview: Diagnoses by Dog Noses—Dogs Can Sniff Out Patients with COVID-19

C. diff-sniffing Beagle Dog Could Lead to Better Infection Control Outcomes in Hospitals and Nursing Homes

Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s Disease in Patients Even Before Symptoms Appear May Help Researchers Develop New Clinical Laboratory Test

Wellcome Sanger Institute Study Discovers New Strain of C. Difficile That Targets Sugar in Hospital Foods and Resists Standard Disinfectants

Researchers believe new findings about genetic changes in C. difficile are a sign that it is becoming more difficult to eradicate

Hospital infection control teams, microbiologists, and clinical laboratory professionals soon may be battling a strain of Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) that is even more resistant to disinfectants and other forms of infection control.

That’s the opinion of research scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute (WSI) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in the United Kingdom who discovered the “genetic changes” in C. difficile. Their genomics study, published in Nature Genetics, shows that the battle against super-bugs could be heating up.

A WSI news release states the researchers “identified genetic changes in the newly-emerging species that allow it to thrive on the Western sugar-rich diet, evade common hospital disinfectants, and spread easily.”

Microbiologists and infectious disease doctors know full well that this means the battle to control HAIs is far from won.

C. difficile is currently forming a new species with one group specialized to spread in hospital environments. This emerging species has existed for thousands of years, but this is the first time anyone has studied C. difficile genomics in this way to identify it. This particular [bacterium] was primed to take advantage of modern healthcare practices and human diets,” said Nitin Kumar, PhD (above), in the news release. (Photo copyright: Wellcome Sanger Institute.) 

Genomic Study Finds New Species of Bacteria Thrive in Western Hospitals

In the published paper, Nitin Kumar, PhD, Senior Bioinformatician at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Joint First Author of the study, described a need to better understand the formation of the new bacterial species. To do so, the researchers first collected and cultured 906 strains of C. difficile from humans, animals, and the environment. Next, they sequenced each DNA strain. Then, they compared and analyzed all genomes.

The researchers found that “about 70% of the strain collected specifically from hospital patients shared many notable characteristics,” the New York Post (NYPost) reported.

Hospital medical laboratory leaders will be intrigued by the researchers’ conclusion that C. difficile is dividing into two separate species. The new type—dubbed C. difficile clade A—seems to be targeting sugar-laden foods common in Western diets and easily spreads in hospital environments, the study notes. 

“It’s not uncommon for bacteria to evolve, but this time we actually see what factors are responsible for the evolution,” Kumar told Live Science.

New C. Difficile Loves Sugar, Spreads

Researchers found changes in the DNA and ability of the C. difficile clade A to metabolize simple sugars. Common hospital fare, such as “the pudding cups and instant mashed potatoes that define hospital dining are prime targets for these strains”, the NYPost explained.

Indeed, C. difficile clade A does have a sweet tooth. It was associated with infection in mice that were put on a sugary “Western” diet, according to the Daily Mail, which reported the researchers found that “tougher” spores enabled the bacteria to fight disinfectants and were, therefore, likely to spread in healthcare environments and among patients.

“The new C. difficile produces spores that are more resistant and have increased sporulation and host colonization capacity when glucose or fructose is available for metabolism. Thus, we report the formation of an emerging C. difficile species, selected for metabolizing simple dietary sugars and producing high levels or resistant spores, that is adapted for healthcare-mediated transmission,” the researchers wrote in Nature Genetics.

Bacteria Pose Risk to Patients

The findings about the new strains of C. difficile bacteria now taking hold in provider settings are important because hospitalized patients are among those likely to develop life-threatening diarrhea due to infection. In particular, people being treated with antibiotics are vulnerable to hospital-acquired infections, because the drugs eliminate normal gut bacteria that control the spread of C. difficile bacteria, the researchers explained.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), C. difficile causes about a half-million infections in patients annually and 15,000 of those infections lead to deaths in the US each year.

New Hospital Foods and Disinfectants Needed

The WSI/LSHTM study suggests hospital representatives should serve low-sugar diets to patients and purchase stronger disinfectants. 

“We show that strains of C. difficile bacteria have continued to evolve in response to modern diets and healthcare systems and reveal that focusing on diet and looking for new disinfectants could help in the fight against this bacteria,” said Trevor Lawley, PhD, Senior Author and Group Leader of the Lawley Lab at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, in the news release.

Microbiologists, infectious disease physicians, and their associates in nutrition and environmental services can help by understanding and watching development of the new C. difficile species and offering possible therapies and approaches toward prevention.

Meanwhile, clinical laboratories and microbiology labs will want to keep up with research into these new forms of C. difficile, so that they can identify the strains of this bacteria that are more resistant to disinfectants and other infection control methods.  

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Adaptation of Host Transmission Cycle During Clostridium Difficile Speciation

Diarrhea-causing Bacteria Adapted to Spread in Hospitals

Sugary Western Diets Fuel Newly Evolving Superbug

New Carb-Loving Superbug is Primed to Target Hospital Food

Superbug C Difficile Evolving to Spread in Hospitals and Feeds on the Sugar-Rich Western Diet

CDC: Healthcare-Associated Infections-C. Difficile  

Clinical Laboratory Leaders Agree: Showing Value Is More Important than Ever as Healthcare Transitions Away from Fee-for Service Reimbursement

How medical laboratories can show value through process improvement methods and analytics will be among many key topics presented at the upcoming Lab Quality Confab conference

Quality management is the clinical laboratory’s best strategy for surviving and thriving in this era of shrinking lab budgets, PAMA price cuts, and value-based payment. In fact, the actions laboratories take in the next few months will set the course for their path to clinical success and financial sustainability in 2020 and beyond.

But how do medical laboratory managers and pathologists address these challenges while demonstrating their lab’s value? One way is through process improvement methods and another is through the use of analytics.

Clinical pathologists, hospital lab leaders, and independent lab executives have told Dark Daily that the trends demanding their focus include:

  • Ensuring needed resources and appropriate tests, while the lab is scrutinized by insurance companies and internally by hospital administration;
  • PAMA’s (Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014) effects on reimbursement;
  • Consumers’ demand for lower cost and better access to quality healthcare;
  • Serving patients in a wider continuum of care; and
  • Collaborating instead of competing with other labs in the market.

“The laboratory and resources we are given are being scrutinized in a different way than they have been historically,” said Christopher Doern, PhD, Director of Microbiology and Associate Professor of Pathology, Virginia Commonwealth University Health System (VCU Health) Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily.

“Our impact on patient care, in many cases, is very indirect. So, it is difficult to point to outcomes that occur. We know things we do matter and change patient care, but objectively showing that is a real struggle. And we are being asked to do more than we ever had before, and those are the two big things that keep me up at night these days,” he added.

This is where process improvement methods and analytics are helping clinical laboratories understand critical issues and find opportunities for positive change.

“You need to have a strategy that you can adapt to a changing landscape in healthcare. You have to use analytics to guide your progress and measure your success,” Patricia Nortmann, System Director of Laboratory Services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Erlanger, Ky., told Dark Daily.

Clinical Laboratories Can Collaborate Instead of Compete

Prior to a joint venture with TriHealth in Cincinnati, St. Elizabeth lab leaders used data to inform their decision-making. Over about 12 years preceding the consolidation of labs they:

  • Centralized the outreach core lab;
  • Installed front-end automation in chemistry;
  • Standardized the laboratory information system (LIS) and analyzer platforms across five affiliate hospitals; and
  • Implemented front-end automation outside the core area and in the microbiology lab.

“We are now considered a regional reference lab in the state of Kentucky for two healthcare organizations—St. Elizabeth and TriHealth,” Nortmann said. 

Thanks to these changes, the lab more than doubled its workload, growing from 2.1 million to 4.3 million outreach tests in the core laboratory, she added.

Christopher Doern, PhD (left), Director of Microbiology and Associate Professor of Pathology at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System; Patricia Nortmann (center), System Director of Laboratory Services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare; and Joseph Cugini (right), Manager Client Solutions at Health Network Laboratories, will present practical solutions and case studies in quality improvement and analytics for clinical laboratory professionals at the 13th Annual Lab Quality Confab, October 15-16, 2019, at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo copyright: The Dark Report.)

Using Analytics to Test the Tests

Clinical laboratories also are using analytics and information technology (IT) to improve test utilization.

At VCH Health, Doern said an analytics solution interfaces with their LIS, providing insights into test orders and informing decisions about workflow. “I use this analytics system in different ways to answer different questions, such as:

  • How are clinicians using our tests?
  • When do things come to the lab?
  • When should we be working on them? 

“This is important for microbiology, which is a very delayed discipline because of the incubation and growth required for the tests we do,” he said.

Using analytics, the lab solved an issue with Clostridium difficile (C diff) testing turnaround-time (TAT) after associating it with specimen transportation.

Inappropriate or duplicate testing also can be revealed through analytics. A physician may reconsider a test after discovering another doctor recently ordered the same test. And the technology can guide doctors in choosing tests in areas where the related diseases are obscure, such as serology.  

Avoiding Duplicate Records While Improving Payment

Another example of process improvement is Health Network Laboratories (HNL) in Allentown, Pa. A team there established an enterprise master patient index (EMPI) and implemented digital tools to find and eliminate duplicate patient information and improve lab financial indicators.

“The system uses trusted sources of data to make sure data is clean and the lab has what it needs to send out a proper bill. That is necessary on the reimbursement side—from private insurance companies especially—to prevent denials,” Joseph Cugini, HNL’s Manager Client Solutions, told Dark Daily

HNL reduced duplicate records in its database from 23% to under one percent. “When you are talking about several million records, that is quite a significant improvement,” he said.

Processes have improved not only on the billing side, but in HNL’s patient service centers as well, he added. Staff there easily find patients’ electronic test orders, and the flow of consumers through their visits is enhanced.

Learn More at Lab Quality Confab Conference

Cugini, Doern, and Nortmann will speak on these topics and more during the 13th Annual Lab Quality Confab (LQC), October 15-16, 2019, at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Ga. They will offer insights, practical knowledge, and case studies involving Lean, Six Sigma, and other process improvement methods during this important 2-day conference, a Dark Daily news release notes.

Register for LQC, which is produced by Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report, online at, or by calling 512-264-7103.   

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

13th Annual Lab Quality Confab October 15-16, 2019. Hyatt Regency, Atlanta, Ga.

Clinical Laboratory Innovators in Lean, Six Sigma, and Process Improvement to Gather in Atlanta October 15-16, 2019

Leapfrog Group Report Shows Hospitals Failing to Eliminate Hospital-Acquired Infections; Medical Laboratories Can Help Providers’ Antimicrobial Stewardship Programs

Contrary to CMS and Joint Commission programs implemented in 2017 to reduce them, incidents of hospital-acquired infections have risen for the past few years

Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists know that hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) can be deadly, not just for patients, but for their caregivers and families as well. Even one HAI is too many. Thus, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) required healthcare organizations to upgrade their antimicrobial stewardship (AMS) programs to meet CMS requirements and Joint Commission accreditation starting in 2017.

Nevertheless, a recent Leapfrog Group report indicates hospitals are finding it increasingly difficult to remove infections all together. This has many healthcare leaders concerned.

The report, which was analyzed by Castlight Health, states that the number of hospitals reporting zero infections has declined significantly since 2015, according to a news release. According to the Leapfrog Group’s report:

  • Two million people acquire HAIs every year;
  • 90,000 people die annually from HAIs;
  • HAI costs range from $1,000 to $50,000 depending on the infection.

Hospitals spend $28 to $45 billion annually on HAI costs, Healthcare Finance reported.

“I think it’s far too easy to let something slip, so it’s clear that there really needs to be a renewed focus on getting back to zero. We do still see some hospitals that are getting to zero, so it’s clearly possible,” Erica Mobley (above), Leapfrog Group’s Director of Operations, told Fierce Healthcare. (Photo copyright: LinkedIn.)

Regressing Instead of Progressing Toward Total HAI Elimination

Leapfrog Group’s report is based on 2017 hospital survey data submitted by 2,000 providers. The data indicates that in just two years the number of hospitals reporting zero HAIs dropped by up to 50%. The reported HAIs include:

The remaining infection measures studied by Leapfrog Group had less dramatic decreases over the same time period, according to Fierce Healthcare. Nevertheless, they are significant. They include:

  • Surgical site infections (SSI) following colon surgery: 19% zero infections compared to 23% previously;
  • Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) inpatient infections: 3% zero inpatient infections in 2017, compared to 5% in 2015.

Joint Commission Studies Antimicrobial Program Progress

Meanwhile, the Joint Commission acknowledged that implementation of antimicrobial stewardship programs by providers can be difficult. In “The Expanding Role of Antimicrobial Stewardship Programs in Hospitals in the United States: Lessons Learned from a Multisite Qualitative Study,” the accrediting organization released insights from interviews with 12 antimicrobial stewardship program leaders nationwide.

They published their study in “The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.” Three themes emerged from the interviews:

  • Hospitals have revised their antimicrobial programs, which originally operated on a “top-down” structure, to programs that include clinicians from throughout entire provider organizations;
  • Health information technology (HIT) can enable real-time opportunities to launch antimicrobial therapy and treat patients; and,
  • Some barriers exist in getting resources to integrate technology and analyze data.

“These programs used expansion of personnel to amplify the antimicrobial stewardship programs’ impact and integrated IT resources into daily workflow to improve efficiency,” the researchers wrote. “Hospital antimicrobial stewardship programs can reduce inappropriate antimicrobial use, length of stay, C. difficile infection, rates of resistant infections, and cost.”

What Do CMS and Joint Commission Expect?

According to Contagion, while the Joint Commission program is part of medication management, CMS places its requirements for the antimicrobial stewardship program under “infection prevention.”

CMS requirements for an antimicrobial stewardship program include:

  • Developing antimicrobial stewardship program policies and procedures;
  • Implementing hospital-wide efforts;
  • Involving antimicrobial stakeholders for focus on antimicrobial use and bacterial resistance;
  • Setting evidence-based antimicrobial use goals; and,
  • Reducing effects of antimicrobial use in areas of C. difficile infections and antibiotic resistance.

Leapfrog Group’s data about fewer hospitals reporting zero infections offers opportunities for hospital laboratory microbiology professionals to get involved with hospital-wide antimicrobial program teams and processes and help their hospitals progress back to zero HAIs. Clinical laboratories, both hospital-based and independent, also have opportunities to contribute to improving the antimicrobial stewardship efforts of the physicians who refer them specimens.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Troubling New Report on Hospital Infections Comes While Centers Medicare and Medicaid Services Considers Discontinuing Publicly Reporting Rates

Leapfrog Group: Healthcare-Associated Infections

Antimicrobial Stewardship Standards: A Comparison of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Joint Commission Requirements

Joint Commission: New Antimicrobial Stewardship Standard

Core Elements of Hospital Antibiotic Stewardship Programs

Number of Hospitals Achieving Zero Infections Drops

Hospitals Losing Ground on Effectively Preventing Infections with Dramatic Drop in Those Reporting Zero Infections

The Expanding Role of Antimicrobial Stewardship Programs in Hospitals in the United States: Lessons Learned from a Multi-Site Qualitative Study

Attention Microbiologists and Medical Laboratory Scientists: New Research Suggests an Organism’s Microbiome Might Be a Factor in Longer, More Active Lives

Is gut microbiota the fabled fountain of youth? Researchers at Valenzano Research Lab in Germany found it works for killifish. Could it work for other vertebrates as well?

Research into the microbiomes of humans and other animals is uncovering tantalizing insights as to how different microbes can be beneficial or destructive to the host. It is reasonable to expect ongoing research will eventually give microbiologists and clinical laboratories useful new medical laboratory tests that assess an individual’s microbiome for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

Human microbiota (AKA, microbiome) have been identified as having a key role in several different health conditions. In previous ebriefings, Dark Daily reported on several breakthroughs involving the microbiome that bring the promise of precision medicine ever closer. Research and clinical studies are contributing to more accurate diagnoses, identification of best drugs for specific patients, and, enhanced information for physician decision-making, to name just a few benefits.

Now, researchers at Valenzano Research Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging in Cologne, Germany, are looking into whether gut microbiota could potentially increase life spans in all vertebrates, a group of species that includes humans.

Valenzano Lab published its study online in August. The team of scientists and researchers led by Dario Valenzano, PhD, focused on the longevity of the turquoise killifish (Nothobranchius furzeri), a tiny fish native to the African countries of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. They found that when older killifish ate the fecal matter of younger killifish they lived longer. The fecal matter carried the microbiota to the older fish and extended their lifespans.

Moving Microbiome from One Gut to Another

To perform the research, Valenzano and his team first treated killifish that were nine and a half weeks old (considered middle-aged) with antibiotics to cleanse their gut flora. The fish were then placed in a sterile aquarium containing the gut contents of young adult killifish that were just six weeks old. Although killifish won’t typically eat feces, they would nip at the gut contents in the water and swallow some of the microbes from the younger fish in the process. The researchers discovered that the transplanted microbes were able to successfully colonize the stomachs of the older fish.

Dario Valenzano, PhD (above), gazes at an older Killifish, the subject in his research into increased aging at the Valenzano Research Lab in Cologne, Germany. Studies of the microbiomes of different species is expected to eventually give microbiologists new and useful clinical laboratory tests. (Photo copyright: Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging.)

When the middle-aged killifish reached the age of 16 weeks—considered elderly—their gut microbiomes were still similar to that of a six-week-old fish. The process had a noticeable effect on the lifespan of the killifish that received the microbiome transplants from the young fish. They lived 41% longer than killifish that received microbes from middle-aged fish and their longevity increased by 37% over fish that were not exposed to any treatment at all. In addition, at 16 weeks, the killifish who had received the transplants were much more active than fish of the same age who had not received the transplants.

“These results suggest that controlling the composition of the gut microbes can improve health and increase life span,” the study paper noted. “The model system used in this study could provide new ways to manipulate the gut microbial community and gain key insights into how the gut microbes affect aging. Manipulating gut microbes to resemble a community found in young individuals could be a strategy to delay the onset of age-related diseases.”

Transferring Fecal Microbiota to Save/Extend Human Lives

Previous research has indicated there may be a connection between microbiomes and aging in some animals, and that the diversity of gut microbes decreases with age. This study proved that this same pattern is true in turquoise killifish.

However, Valenzano does not know how the microbes are affecting the lifespans of the older killifish. “It is possible that an aging immune system is less effective at protecting the micro-organisms in the intestines, with the result that there is a higher prevalence of pathogens in older guts. The gut microbiota in a young organism could help to counter this and therefore support the immune system and prevent inflammation. This could lead to longer life expectancy and better health,” he stated in a press release.

“You can really tell whether a fish is young or old based on its gut microbiota,” Valenzano told Nature. He noted, however, that it is too early to determine if fecal transplants can be used in humans to extend life. “I wouldn’t go that far. This is really early evidence that this has a potential positive effect.”

There is, however, a similar procedure used in humans called Fecal Microbiota Transplant or FMT that has demonstrated promising results in treating certain illnesses.

In a fecal transplant, fecal matter is collected from an approved donor, treated, and placed in a patient during a colonoscopy, endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or enema. The purpose of the transplant is to replace good bacteria in a colon that has undergone an event that caused the colon to be inundated with bad bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile, resulting in C. diff. infection, a life-threatening illness that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), kills tens of thousands of people each year.

“The challenge with all of these experiments is going to be to dissect the mechanism. I expect it will be very complex,” stated Heinrich Jasper, PhD, in the Nature article. Jasper is a professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California. His lab is working on similar research with microbiome transplants in fruit flies. He predicts this type of longevity research will be performed on other animals in the future.

Valenzano’s and Jasper’s research may eventually create new diagnostic tools for microbiologists to assess the microbiome of individual patients. This technology may also enable microbiologists to advise pathologists and clinical laboratories regarding what specific microbes may be harmful and what microbes may be therapeutically beneficial to patients.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

‘Young Poo’ Makes Aged Fish Live Longer

Gut Bacteria Affect Aging

Killifish Project Sheds Light on the Genetic Basis for Aging

National Project to Harness Microbes for Health, Environment

Effort to Map Human Microbiome Will Generate Useful New Clinical Lab Tests for Pathologists

Mayo Clinic and Whole Biome Announce Collaboration to Research the Role of the Human Microbiome in Women’s Diseases Using Unique Medical Laboratory Tests

Expanding Knowledge about the Human Microbiome Will Lead to New Clinical Pathology Laboratory Tests