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.
Although there are healthcare providers who see the potential in microbiome testing, many clinical laboratories are not yet ready to embrace microbiome-based testing
In an unlikely string of events, no less than Nordstrom, the national department store chain, announced in September that it would offer microbiome-based test claimed to “check gut health.” Apparently, its customers were interested in this clinical laboratory test, as the Nordstrom website currently indicates that the “Health Intelligence Test Kit by Viome” is already sold out!
What does it say about consumer interest in clinical laboratory self-testing that Nordstrom has decided to offer at-home microbiome tests to its store customers? Can it be assumed that Nordstrom conducted enough marketing surveys of its customers to determine: a) that they were interested in microbiome testing; and b) they would buy enough microbiome tests that Nordstrom would benefit financially from either the mark-up on the tests or from the derived goodwill for meeting customer expectations?
Whatever the motivation, the retail giant recently announced it had partnered with Viome Life Sciences to sell Viome’s microbiome testing kits to its customers online, and in 2022, at some Nordstrom retail locations. These tests are centered around helping consumers understand the relationship between their microbiome and nutrition.
Pathologists and clinical laboratories will want to track Nordstrom’s success or failure in selling microbiome-based assays to its consumers. Microbiomics is in its infancy and remains a very unsettled area of diagnostics. Similarly, Viome, a self-described precision health and wellness company that conducts mRNA analysis at scale, will need to demonstrate that its strategy of developing precision medicine diagnostics and therapeutics based on the human microbiome has clinical relevance.
Helping Consumers with ‘Precision Nutrition’
In a September news release, Viome founder and CEO Naveen Jain, a serial entrepreneur, said, “Both Viome and Nordstrom believe that true health and beauty start from within. There is no such thing as a universal healthy food or healthy supplement. What is right for one person can be wrong for someone else, especially when it comes to nutrition which is key to human longevity and vitality. Precision nutrition is the future!”
“Precision medicine seeks to improve the personalized treatment of diseases, and precision nutrition is specific to dietary intake. Both develop interventions to prevent or treat chronic diseases based on a person’s unique characteristics like DNA, race, gender, health history, and lifestyle habits. Both aim to provide safer and more effective ways to prevent and treat disease by providing more accurate and targeted strategies.
“Precision nutrition assumes that each person may have a different response to specific foods and nutrients, so that the best diet for one individual may look very different than the best diet for another.
“Precision nutrition also considers the microbiome, trillions of bacteria in our bodies that play a key role in various daily internal operations. What types and how much bacteria we have are unique to each individual. Our diets can determine which types of bacteria live in our digestive tracts, and according to precision nutrition the reverse is also true: the types of bacteria we house might determine how we break down certain foods and what types of foods are most beneficial for our bodies.”
Medical Laboratory Testing, not Guessing
Viome Life Sciences is a microbiome and RNA analysis company based in Bellevue, Wash. The test kit that Nordstrom is selling is called the Health Intelligence Test. It is an at-home mRNA test that can provide users with some insights regarding their health. Consumers use the kit to collect blood and fecal samples, then return those samples to Viome for testing.
In a press release announcing its collaboration with Nordstrom, Viome said, “In a world overwhelmed by information relating to diet and supplement advice, Viome believes in testing, not guessing and empowering its users with actionable insights. To date, Viome has helped over 250,000 individuals improve their health through precision nutrition powered by microbial and human gene expression insights.”
Nordstrom began offering Viome’s Health Intelligence Test kit for $199 on its website starting in September. As of this writing and noted above, the kits are sold out. Nordstrom plans to stock the kit in select stores starting in 2022.
Individuals who purchase the test submit blood and stool samples to Viome’s lab which performs an analysis of gene activity patterns in the user’s cells and microbiome. Viome provides the results to consumers within two to three weeks.
“This partnership is a giant step towards making our technology more accessible, so people can understand what’s right for their unique body,” Jain said in the news release. “We are inspired each day by the incredible changes our customers are seeing in their health including improvements in digestion, weight, stress, ability to focus, and more.”
According to the news release, Viome conducted blind studies earlier this year that revealed significant successes based on their precision nutritional approach to wellness. Study participants, Viome claims, improved their outcomes to four diseases through nutrition:
Is Microbiome Diagnostics Testing Ready for Clinical Use?
Microbiomics is a relatively new field of diagnostics research. Much more research and testing will be needed to prove its clinical value and efficacy in healthcare diagnostics. Nevertheless, companies are offering microbiomics testing to consumers and that has some healthcare providers concerned.
In the GeekWire article, David Suskind, MD, a gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington, described Viome’s study methodology as “questionable,” adding, “I think this is a very interesting and exciting space and I do think there are definite potential implications, down the road. [However] we are not there in terms of looking at microbiome and making broad recommendation for individuals, as of yet.”
Will at-home clinical laboratory testing kits that analyze an individual’s microbiome someday provide data that help people lead healthier lives and ward off diseases? That’s Jain’s prediction.
In an article published in Well+Good, Jain said, “COVID-19 has, of course, been such a dark time, but one positive that did come from it is that more people are taking control of their own health. I really believe that the future of healthcare will be delivered not at the hospital, but at home.”
If this collaboration between Nordstrom and Viome proves successful, similar partnerships between at-home diagnostics developers and established retail chains may become even more common. And that should be on the radars of pathologists and clinical laboratories.