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.
Findings could lead to deeper understanding of why we age, and to medical laboratory tests and treatments to slow or even reverse aging
Can humans control aging by keeping their genes long and balanced? Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, believe it may be possible. They have unveiled a “previously unknown mechanism” behind aging that could lead to medical interventions to slow or even reverse aging, according to a Northwestern news release.
Should additional studies validate these early findings, this line of testing may become a new service clinical laboratories could offer to referring physicians and patients. It would expand the test menu with assays that deliver value in diagnosing the aging state of a patient, and which identify the parts of the transcriptome that are undergoing the most alterations that reduce lifespan.
It may also provide insights into how treatments and therapies could be implemented by physicians to address aging.
“I find it very elegant that a single, relatively concise principle seems to account for nearly all of the changes in activity of genes that happen in animals as they change,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN. Clinical laboratories involved in omics research may soon have new anti-aging diagnostic tests to perform. (Photo copyright: Amaral Lab.)
Possible ‘New Instrument’ for Biological Testing
Researchers found clues to aging in the length of genes. A gene transcript length reveals “molecular-level changes” during aging: longer genes relate to longer lifespans and shorter genes suggest shorter lives, GEN summarized.
The phenomenon the researchers uncovered—which they dubbed transcriptome imbalance—was “near universal” in the tissues they analyzed (blood, muscle, bone, and organs) from both humans and animals, Northwestern said.
The Northwestern study suggests “systems-level” changes are responsible for aging—a different view than traditional biology’s approach to analyzing the effects of single genes.
“We have been primarily focusing on a small number of genes, thinking that a few genes would explain disease,” said Luis Amaral, PhD, Senior Author of the Study and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern, in the news release.
“So, maybe we were not focused on the right thing before. Now that we have this new understanding, it’s like having a new instrument. It’s like Galileo with a telescope, looking at space. Looking at gene activity through this new lens will enable us to see biological phenomena differently,” Amaral added.
In their Nature Aging paper, Amaral and his colleagues wrote, “We hypothesize that aging is associated with a phenomenon that affects the transcriptome in a subtle but global manner that goes unnoticed when focusing on the changes in expression of individual genes.
“We show that transcript length alone explains most transcriptional changes observed with aging in mice and humans,” they continued.
In tissues studied, older animals’ long transcripts were not as “abundant” as short transcripts, creating “imbalance.”
“Imbalance” likely prohibited the researchers’ discovery of a “specific set of genes” changing.
As animals aged, shorter genes “appeared to become more active” than longer genes.
In humans, the top 5% of genes with the shortest transcripts “included many linked to shorter life spans such as those involved in maintaining the length of telomeres.”
Conversely, the researchers’ review of the leading 5% of genes in humans with the longest transcripts found an association with long lives.
Antiaging drugs—rapamycin (aka, sirolimus) and resveratrol—were linked to an increase in long-gene transcripts.
“The changes in the activity of genes are very, very small, and these small changes involve thousands of genes. We found this change was consistent across different tissues and in different animals. We found it almost everywhere,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN.
In their paper, the Northwestern scientists noted implications for creation of healthcare interventions.
“We believe that understanding the direction of causality between other age-dependent cellular and transcriptomic changes and length-associated transcriptome imbalance could open novel research directions for antiaging interventions,” they wrote.
While more research is needed to validate its findings, the Northwestern study is compelling as it addresses a new area of transcriptome knowledge. This is another example of researchers cracking open human and animal genomes and gaining new insights into the processes supporting life.
For clinical laboratories and pathologists, diagnostic testing to reverse aging and guide the effectiveness of therapies may one day be possible—kind of like science’s take on the mythical Fountain of Youth.
Researchers surprised that process designed to detect SARS-CoV-2 also identifies monkeypox in wastewater
Early information about an outbreak in a geographical region can inform local clinical laboratories as to which infectious agents and variants they are likely to see when testing patients who have symptoms. To that end, wastewater testing has become a rich source of early clues as to where COVID-19 outbreaks are spreading and how new variants of the coronavirus are emerging.
Ongoing advances in genetic sequencing and digital technologies are making it feasible to test wastewater for infectious agents in ways that were once too time-consuming, too expensive, or simply impossible.
“Before wastewater sequencing, the only way to do this was through clinical testing, which is not feasible at large scale, especially in areas with limited resources, public participation, or the capacity to do sufficient testing and sequencing,” said Knight in a UCSD press release. “We’ve shown that wastewater sequencing can successfully track regional infection dynamics with fewer limitations and biases than clinical testing to the benefit of almost any community.” (Photo copyright: UC San Diego News.)
Same Process, Different Virus
Following August’s declaration of a state of emergency by California, San Diego County, and the federal government, UCSD researchers added monkeypox surveillance to UCSD’s existing wastewater surveillance program.
“It’s the same process as SARS-CoV-2 qPCR monitoring, except that we have been testing for a different virus. Monkeypox is a DNA virus, so it is a bit of a surprise that our process optimized for SARS-CoV-2, which is an RNA virus, works so well,” said Rob Knight, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science and Engineering at UCSD and one of the lead authors of the study in the press release.
According to the press release, RNA sequencing from wastewater has two specific benefits:
It avoids the potential of clinical testing biases, and
It can track changes in the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 variants over time.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists from the University of California San Diego and Scripps Research looked into genetic sequencing of wastewater. They wanted to see if it would provide insights into levels and variants of the SARS-CoV-2 within a specific community.
Individuals who have COVID-19 shed the virus in their stool.
The UCSD/Scripps researchers deployed commercial auto-sampling robots to collect wastewater samples at the main UCSD campus. They analyzed the samples for levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA at the Expedited COVID-19 Identification Environment (EXCITE) lab at UCSD. After the success of the program on the campus, they extended their research to include other facilities and communities in the San Diego area.
Detecting Pathogens Weeks Earlier than Traditional Clinical Laboratory Testing
In July, the scientists successfully determined the genetic mixture of SARS-CoV-2 variants present in wastewater samples by examining just two teaspoons of raw sewage. They found they could accurately identify new variants 14 days before traditional clinical laboratory testing. They detected the presence of the Omicron variant 11 days before it was first reported clinically in the community.
During the study, the team collected and analyzed 21,383 sewage samples, with most of those samples (19,944) being taken from the UCSD campus. They performed genomic sequencing on 600 of the samples and compared them to genomes obtained from clinical swabs. They also compared 31,149 genomes from clinical genomic surveillance to 837 wastewater samples taken from the community.
The scientists distinguished specific viral lineages present in the samples by sequencing the viruses’ complete set of genetic instructions. Mutational differences between the various SARS-CoV-2 variants can be minute and subtle, but also have notable biological deviations.
“Nothing like this had been done before. Sampling and detection efforts began modestly but grew steadily with increased research capacity and experience. Currently, we’re monitoring almost 350 buildings on campus,” said UCSD’s Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, PhD, in the July press release.
“The wastewater program was an essential element of UC San Diego Health’s response to the COVID pandemic,” said Robert Schooley, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist at UC San Diego Health, in the press release. Schooley is also a professor at UCSD School of Medicine, and one of the authors of the study.
“It provided us with real-time intelligence about locations on campus where virus activity was ongoing,” he added. “Wastewater sampling essentially allowed us to ‘swab the noses’ of every person upstream from the collector every day and to use that information to concentrate viral detection efforts at the individual level.”
Monkeypox Added to UCSD Wastewater Surveillance
In August, UCSD officially added the surveillance of the monkeypox virus to their ongoing wastewater surveillance program. A month earlier, the researchers had discerned 10,565.54 viral copies per liter of wastewater. They observed the levels fluctuating and increasing.
On August 2, the scientists detected 189,309.81 viral copies per liter of wastewater. However, it is not yet clear if the monitoring of monkeypox viral loads in wastewater will enable the researchers to accurately predict future infections or case rates.
“We don’t yet know if the data will anticipate case surges like with COVID,” Knight said in the August UCSD press release announcing the addition of monkeypox to the surveillance program. “It depends on when the virus is shed from the body relative to how bad the symptoms are that cause people to seek care. This is, in principle, different for each virus, although in practice wastewater seems to be predictive for multiple viruses.”
Utilization of genetic sequencing of wastewater sampling will continue to develop and improve. “It’s fairly easy to add new pathogens to the process,” said Smruthi Karthikeyan, PhD, an environmental engineer and postdoctoral researcher in Knight’s lab who has overseen wastewater monitoring at UC San Diego. “It’s doable on short notice. We can get more information in the same turnaround time.”
Thus, clinical laboratories engaged in testing programs for COVID-19 may soon see the addition of monkeypox to those processes.
The data links protein-coding genes to antibodies, which could help researchers develop clinical laboratory tests that use specific antibodies to identify and target infectious disease. Might this also lead to a new menu of serology tests that could be used by medical laboratories?
This research is another example of how various databases of genetic and proteomic information—different “omics”—are being combined to produce new understanding of human biology and physiology.
In a Human Protein Atlas (HPA) project press release, Director of the HPA consortium and Professor of Microbiology at Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Mathias Uhlén, PhD, said, “The [Science Advances] paper describes an important addition to the Human Protein Atlas (HPA) which has become one of the world’s most visited biological databases, harboring millions of web pages with information about all the human protein coding genes.”
Distinct Expression Clusters Consistent to Similar Cell Types
To perform their research, the scientists mapped the gene expression profile of all protein-coding genes across different cell types. Their analysis showed that there are distinct expression clusters which are consistent to cell types sharing similar functions within the same organs and between organs of the human body.
The scientists examined data from non-diseased human tissues and organs using three main criteria:
Publicly available raw data from human tissues containing good technical quality with at least 4,000 cells analyzed and at least 20 million read counts by the sequencing for each tissue.
High correlation between pseudo-bulk transcriptomics profile from the scRNA-Seq data and bulk RNA-Seq generated as part of the Human Protein Atlas (HPA).
High correlation between the cluster-specific expression and the expected expression pattern of an extensive selection of marker genes representing well-known tissue- and cell type-specific markers, including both markers from the original publications and additional markers used in pathology diagnostics.
According to the HPA press release, “across all analyzed cell types, almost 14,000 genes showed an elevated expression in particular cell types, out of which approximately 2,000 genes were found to be specific for only one of the cell types.”
The press release also states, “cell types in testis showed the highest numbers of cell type elevated genes, followed by ciliated cells. Interestingly, only 11% of the genes were detected in all analyzed cell types suggesting that the number of essential genes (‘house-keeping’) are surprisingly few.”
Omics-based Biomarkers for Accurate Diagnosis of Disease
The Human Protein Atlas is the largest and most comprehensive database for spatial distribution of proteins in human tissues and cells. It provides a valuable tool for researchers who study and analyze protein localization and expression in human tissues and cells.
Ongoing improvements in gene sequencing technologies are making research of genes more accurate, faster, and more economical. Advances in gene sequencing also could help medical professionals discover more personalized care for patients leading to improved outcomes. A key goal of precision medicine.
One of the conclusions to be drawn from this work is that clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups will need to be able to handle immense amounts of data, while at the same time having the capabilities to analyze that data and identify useful patterns that can help diagnose patients earlier and more accurately.
Even in its early stages the Human Cell Atlas project is impacting the direction of research and development of RNA sequencing and other genetic tests
No one knows exactly how many cell types exist in the human body. Though traditional texts place numbers in the hundreds, recent studies have found ranges from thousands to tens of thousands. Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists know that the discovery of new types of human cells could lead to the creation of new medical laboratory tests.
So, it’s an important development that leaders of the Human Cell Atlas Consortium, a project comparable to the Human Genome Project, have set out to determine the exact numbers of cell types. And their findings could open up an entirely new field of diagnostic testing for clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology and lead to advances in precision medicine.
With the ability to identify cell types and sub-types associated with human disease and health conditions, medical labs could have a useful new way to help physicians make diagnoses and select appropriate therapies.
Begun in 2016, the group’s mission according to the Human Cell Atlas website is “To create comprehensive reference maps of all human cells—the fundamental units of life—as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring, and treating disease.”
The ambitious project aims to catalog every cell type in the human body and “account for and better understand every cell type and sub-type, and how they interact.”
Striving for Deeper Understanding of the Basics
Cells are the basic building blocks of life, but scientists don’t know exactly how many different types of cells there are.
In an innovative move, Regev and her team improved the method they were already using to sort cells—single-cell RNA sequencing. “All of sudden we moved from something that was very laborious—and we could do maybe a few dozen or a few hundred—to something where we could do many, many thousands in a 15- to 20-minute experiment,” she told NPR.
But the project is massive. A typical human body contains about 37.2 trillion cells. So, the Human Cell Atlas scientists decided to complete preliminary pilot projects to identify the most efficient and effective strategies for sampling and analyzing the various cells to create the full atlas.
“It’s kind of like we’re trying to find out what are all the different colors of Lego building blocks that we have in our bodies,” Sarah Teichmann, PhD, Head of Cellular Genetics and Senior Group Leader at Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, and co-leader of the Human Cell Atlas Consortium, told NPR. “We’re trying to find out how those building blocks—how those Lego parts—fit together in three dimensions within each tissue.”
Sarah Teichmann, PhD (left), and Aviv Regev, PhD (right), are co-leaders of the Human Cell Atlas Consortium, an ambitious project of MIT/Harvard Broad Institute that seeks to “create comprehensive reference maps of all human cells—the fundamental units of life—as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring, and treating disease.” Such an advance could lead to significant advances in clinical laboratory and pathology testing and move healthcare closer to true precision medicine. (Photo copyrights: University of Cambridge and MIT/Broad Institute.
In the two short years since the Human Cell Atlas project began much work has already been accomplished, according to a news release. In addition to organizing the consortium and obtaining funding, the collaborators have published a white paper describing their goals and a framework for reaching them, as well as launching the pilot projects.
Such an ambitious project, however, is not without barriers and challenges. Regev and Teichmann, along with other collaborators, outlined some of those challenges in an article published in Nature.
The complexity of the human body combined with rapidly changing technology make simply agreeing on the scope of the project challenging. In order to meet that particular challenge, the collaborators plan to work in phases and drafts, which will allow for some flexibility and increasing focus on specifics as they go.
Other challenges include:
keeping the entire project open and fair;
procuring samples with consent and in an appropriate manner; and,
organizing in an efficient and effective manner.
The collaborators have developed and detailed strategies for meeting each of these challenges.
The Human Cell Atlas could impact treatments for every disease that affects humans and bring healthcare closer to accomplishing precision medicine goals. By knowing what cells exist in what parts of the human body—and how they typically behave at their most basic levels—the MIT/Harvard/Broad Institute scientists hope to understand what’s happening when those cells “misbehave” in expected ways. The knowledge garnered from the Human Cell Atlas is likely to be invaluable to anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratories.