Studying gut bacteria continues to intrigue investors, but can the results produce viable diagnostic data for healthcare providers?
Even as microbiologists and clinical pathologists closely watch research into the human microbiome and anticipate study findings that could lead to new medical laboratory tests based on microbiome testing, there are entrepreneurs ready to tout the benefits of microbiome testing to consumers. That’s the impetus behind an announced deal between a microbiome testing company and a national pharmacy chain.
That deal involves health startup Viome Life Sciences, which recently closed a $86.5 million Series C funding round to support research and development of its consumer health at-home test kits, and CVS, which will sell Viome’s Gut Intelligence Test at 200 of the pharmacy company’s retail locations nationwide, according to an August press release.
“Founded seven years ago by serial entrepreneur Naveen Jain, Viome sells at-home kits that analyze the microbial composition of stool samples and provide food recommendations, as well as supplements and probiotics. Viome says it is the first company to sell gut tests at CVS, both online and in-store. The tests will sell for $179,” GeekWire reported.
Investors appear to be intrigued by these types of opportunities. To date, Viome has raised a total of $175 million.
“In a world where healthcare has often been reactive, treating symptoms and targeting diseases only after they manifest, Viome is pioneering a transformative shift by harnessing the innate power of food and nutrition,” stated Naveen Jain (above), Founder and CEO of Viome, in a press release. “Our mission is not just to prolong life but to enrich it, enabling everyone to thrive in health and vitality.” But some microbiologists and clinical laboratory scientists would consider that the current state of knowledge about the human microbiome is not well-developed enough to justify offering direct-to-consumer microbiology tests that encourage consumers to purchase nutritional products. (Photo copyright: Viome Life Sciences.)
Empowering People to Make Informed Decisions about Their Health
Established in 2016, Bellevue, Washington-based Viome produces and sells, among other tests, its Gut Intelligence at-home test kit, which analyzes the microbial composition of stool samples. This kit relies on RNA sequencing to detect bacteria and other elements present in the gut, such as yeasts and viruses.
The genetic data is then entered into an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to provide individuals with information regarding their personal gut health. Viome partnered with Los Alamos National Laboratory to create their AI platform. The company has collected more than 600,000 test samples to date.
“We are the only company that looks at the gene expression and what these microbes are doing,” said Naveen Jain, Founder and CEO of Viome in the press release.
Viome uses technology combined with science to determine the optimal outcomes for each individual consumer based on his or her unique human and microbial gene expression. The data derived from the microbiome is also utilized to offer nutritional recommendations and supplement advice to test takers.
“At Viome, we’re empowering our customers with an individualized nutrition strategy, cutting through the noise of temporary trends and one-size-fits-all advice,” Jain added. “We’re on a journey to redefine aging itself, and we’re invigorated by the support of our investors and customers. Together, we’re building pathways to wellness that hold the potential to enhance the lives of billions of fellow humans across the globe.”
Manipulating Microbiome through Diet
Some scientists, however, are not sold on the idea of microbiome test kits and the data they offer to healthcare providers for treating illnesses.
Verdu, GeekWire reported, added that “there needs to be standardization of protocols and better understanding of microbiome function in health and disease.”
“Recommendations for such commercial kits would have to be based on evidence-based guidelines, which currently do not exist,” she told GeekWire.
Nevertheless, Jain remains positive about the value of microbiome testing. “The future of medicine will be delivered at home, not at the hospital. And the medicines of the future are going to come from a farm, not a pharmacy,” he told GeekWire.
Viome also sell precision probiotics and prebiotics, as well as supplements and oral health lozenges.
Gut microbiome testing kits, such as the one from Viome, typically require the collection of a stool sample. Healthcare consumers have in the past been reluctant to perform such testing, but as more information regarding gut health is published, that reluctance may diminish.
Clinical laboratories also have a stake in the game. Dynamic direct to consumer at-home testing has the potential to generate revenue for clinical laboratories, while helping consumers who want to monitor different aspects of their health. But this would be an adjunct to the primary mission of medical laboratories to provide testing services to local physicians and their patients.
Molecular probes designed to spot minute amounts of pathogens in biological samples may aid clinical laboratories’ speed-to-answer
Driven to find a better way to isolate minute samples of pathogens from among high-volumes of other biological organisms, researchers at Canada’s McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have unveiled a bioinformatics algorithm which they claim shortens time-to-answer and speeds diagnosis of deadly diseases.
Two disease pathogens the researchers specifically targeted in their study are responsible for sepsis and SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19. Clinical laboratories would welcome a technology which both shortens time-to-answer and improves diagnostic accuracy, particularly for pathogens such as sepsis and SARS-CoV-2.
Their design of molecular probes that target the genomic sequences of specific pathogens can enable diagnosticians and clinical laboratories to spot extremely small amounts of viral and bacterial pathogens in patients’ biological samples, as well as in the environment and wildlife.
“There are thousands of bacterial pathogens and being able to determine which one is present in a patient’s blood sample could lead to the correct treatment faster when time is very important,” Zachery Dickson, a lead author of the study, told Brighter World. Dickson is a bioinformatics PhD candidate in the Department of Biology at McMaster University. “The probe makes identification much faster, meaning we could potentially save people who might otherwise die,” he added.
Sepsis is a life-threatening response to infection that leads to organ failure, tissue damage, and death in hospitals worldwide. According to Sepsis Alliance, about 30% of people diagnosed with severe sepsis will die without quick and proper treatment. Thus, a “shortcut” to identifying sepsis in its early stages may well save many lives, the McMaster researchers noted.
And COVID-19 has killed millions. Such a tool that identifies sepsis and SARS-CoV-2 in minute biological samples would be a boon to hospital medical laboratories worldwide.
Is Bioinformatics ‘Shortcut’ Faster than PCR Testing?
The researchers say their probes enable a shortcut to detection—even in an infection’s early stages—by “targeting, isolating, and identifying the DNA sequences specifically and simultaneously.”
The probes’ design makes possible simultaneous targeted capture of diverse metagenomics targets, Biocompare explained.
But is it faster than PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing?
The McMaster scientists were motivated by the “challenges of low signal, high background, and uncertain targets that plague many metagenomic sequencing efforts,” they noted in their paper.
They pointed to challenges posed by PCR testing, a popular technique used for detection of sepsis pathogens as well as, more recently, for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19.
“The (PCR) technique relies on primers that bind to nucleic acid sequences specific to an organism or group of organisms. Although capable of sensitive, rapid detection and quantification of a particular target, PCR is limited when multiple loci are targeted by primers,” the researchers wrote in Cell Reports Methods.
According to LabMedica, “A wide array of metagenomic study efforts are hampered by the same challenge: low concentrations of targets of interest combined with overwhelming amounts of background signal. Although PCR or naive DNA capture can be used when there are a small number of organisms of interest, design challenges become untenable for large numbers of targets.”
Detecting Pathogens Faster, Cheaper, and More Accurately
As part of their study, researchers tested two probe sets:
one to target bacterial pathogens linked to sepsis, and
another to detect coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2.
They were successful in using the probes to capture a variety of pathogens linked to sepsis and SARS-CoV-2.
“We validated HUBDesign by generating probe sets targeting the breadth of coronavirus diversity, as well as a suite of bacterial pathogens often underlying sepsis. In separate experiments demonstrating significant, simultaneous enrichment, we captured SARS-CoV-2 and HCoV-NL63 [Human coronavirus NL 63] in a human RNA background and seven bacterial strains in human blood. HUBDesign has broad applicability wherever there are multiple organisms of interest,” the researchers wrote in Cell Reports Methods.
The findings also have implications to the environment and wildlife, the researchers noted.
Of course, more research is needed to validate the tool’s usefulness in medical diagnostics. The McMaster University researchers intend to improve HUBDesign’s efficiency but note that probes cannot be designed for unknown targets.
Nevertheless, the advanced application of novel technologies to diagnose of sepsis, which causes 250,000 deaths in the US each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a positive development worth watching.
The McMaster scientists’ discoveries—confirmed by future research and clinical studies—could go a long way toward ending the dire effects of sepsis as well as COVID-19. That would be a welcome development, particularly for hospital-based laboratories.
The self-cleaning material has been proven to repel even the deadliest forms of antibiotic resistant (ABR) superbugs and viruses. This ultimate non-stick coating is a chemically treated form of transparent plastic wrap which can be adhered to surfaces prone to gathering germs, such as door handles, railings, and intravenous therapy (IV) stands.
“We developed the wrap to address the major threat that is posed by multi-drug resistant bacteria,” Leyla Soleymani, PhD, Associate Professor at McMaster University and one of the leaders of the study, told CNN. “Given the limited treatment options for these bugs, it is key to reduce their spread from one person to another.”
According to research published in the peer-reviewed Southern Medical Journal, “KPC-producing bacteria are a group of emerging highly drug-resistant Gram-negative bacilli causing infections associated with significant morbidity and mortality.”
Were those surfaces covered in this new bacterial-resistant
coating, life-threatening infections in hospital ICUs could be prevented.
Taking Inspiration from Nature
In designing their new anti-microbial wrap, McMaster researchers took their inspiration from natural lotus leaves, which are effectively water-resistant and self-cleaning thanks to microscopic wrinkles that repel external molecules. Substances that come in contact with surfaces covered in the new non-stick coating—such as a water, blood, or germs—simply bounce off. They do not adhere to the material.
The “shrink-wrap” is flexible, durable, and inexpensive to
manufacture. And, the researchers hope to locate a commercial partner to
develop useful applications for their discovery.
“We’re structurally tuning that plastic,” Soleymani told SciTechDaily. “This material gives us something that can be applied to all kinds of things.”
Industries Outside of Healthcare Also Would Benefit
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 2.8 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection in the US each year. More than 35,000 people die from these infections, making it one of the biggest health challenges of our time and a threat that needs to be eradicated. This innovative plastic coating could help alleviate these types of infections.
And it’s not just for healthcare. The researchers said the coating could be beneficial to the food industry as well. The plastic surface could help curtail the accidental transfer of bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria in food preparation and packaging, according to the published study.
“We can see this technology being used in all kinds of institutional and domestic settings,” Tohid Didar, PhD, Assistant Professor at McMaster University and co-author of the study, told SciTechDaily. “As the world confronts the crisis of anti-microbial resistance, we hope it will become an important part of the anti-bacterial toolbox.”
Clinical laboratories also are tasked with preventing the
transference of dangerous bacteria to patients and lab personnel. Constant
diligence in application of cleaning protocols is key. If this new anti-bacterial
shrink wrap becomes widely available, medical laboratory managers and
microbiologists will have a new tool to fight bacterial contamination.
Medical laboratory professionals will be surprised to learn that some experts claim American healthcare will not see a return on investment from use of EHR systems
It is the popular wisdom today that universal adoption of electronic health record (EHR) systems will lead to significant improvements in patient outcomes, while also delivering substantial cost savings to the American health system.
Until recently, very little criticism of these federal EHR subsidies has appeared in the media. However, some experts now assert that tens of billions of dollars hospitals and physicians are spending to implement EHRs and integrate their information systems will never be recouped by downstream savings. (more…)