Exploring the Microbial Community for Clues to Health

August 17, 2017

Understanding how our body’s natural communities of microbes, determined mainly at the very beginning of life, influence whether we will develop chronic disease as children and adults.

Beginning in the first months and years of life, the diverse community of microorganisms found on and within the human body, especially in the gut, produce important nutrients. Essential to healthy brain development, digestion and metabolism, this community, known as the microbiome, also helps to regulate our immune system and protect us against disease-causing bacteria.

When the normal microbiome is altered by early exposure to antibiotics, infection or even a poor diet, it can take a huge toll on a child's lifelong health. Imbalances of the microbiome have been linked to obesity, asthma, diabetes, intestinal diseases, behavioral and mental health disorders such as autism, and other conditions.

Understanding of this emerging field continues to grow, but the majority of research has focused on adults.

Bacteria, yeast, viruses and more

Enter Patrick Seed, MD, PhD, who joined Lurie Children's last year as the Associate Chief Research Officer for Basic Science Research at the Stanley Manne Children's Research Institute and was recently invested as the Children's Research Fund Chair in Basic Science. Dr. Seed has been studying microbial communities for more than 20 years and is keenly interested in understanding how our body’s natural communities of microbes, determined mainly at the very beginning of life, influence whether we will develop chronic disease as children and adults. He knows that interactions between microbes and human hosts are complicated.

"We used to think of bacteria as only causing specific infections – Streptococcus pneumoniae causes pneumococcal pneumonia, and Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough," says Dr. Seed, also Professor of Pediatrics in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology and Immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an Attending Physician in Lurie Children's Division of Infectious Diseases. "Now we know that complex communities of bacteria, yeast, viruses and more play a significant role in human health. Investigating these communities is the focus of my lab, and the goal is to find how we can intervene and potentially change the trajectory of health and disease."

Dr. Seed offers an example drawn from his laboratory experiments: "Some babies will be colonized with a bacterium called Haemophilus, the same kind that causes ear infections. Just being colonized with this bacterium as a baby increases the chances of asthma later on. So disruptions to the microbiome change our trajectory toward diseases that may affect us into and through adulthood." 

Accelerating research

The time is right for accelerating research in this area. Ten years ago, sequencing and bioinformatics capabilities were just starting to emerge, revealing remarkable complexity in the body's microbial communities. Now, the cost of sequencing the entire microbial community has dropped and computer processing capabilities have advanced. Dr. Seed and his Manne Research Institute team can analyze large data sets to understand the complexities of the community and study microbes on a global scale, looking at populations of people, their background and their environment.

The Seed lab is working toward the goal of determining the "ideal" microbiome state. With that information, scientists can answer critical questions, including how infections proceed, how to design effective antibiotics, and how to target the cause of infections without disrupting beneficial microbes.

Dr. Seed is currently the principal investigator of two NIH-funded grants. One focuses on how the microbes colonize on and within infants and help develop the immune system, and the other on how microbes that colonize infants can change a child's chances of acquiring allergies and asthma.

Additionally, he is a co-principal investigator of an NIH grant to create a comprehensive research resource to understand how microbes help or hinder the successful treatment of childhood obesity, ending with the development of new treatments.

"When we get right down to it," Dr. Seed explains, "we are working out a novel way to predict, analyze and potentially prevent chronic disease. The possibilities for discovery are limitless."

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Heroes magazine.