Why Disease is an Inside Job: Microbiome Researchers Crack the Code

There’s a whole lot more going on in your body than you know. Right now, trillions of microorganisms are hanging out in the gut (and elsewhere,) sustained in their own universe. And these microscopic critters could hold the answers to much, much more than a stomach flu or a yeast infection.

Scientists who study this internal world are called microbiome researchers and, according to a release put out by Newswise, three of them just won the 2017 Massry Prize (and a nice payday) for their work that could lead to some major breakthroughs in the treatment of any number of common and rare diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease or the autoimmune disease, neuromyelitis optica (NMO).

Rob Knight, Ph.D., University of California San Diego, Jeffrey Gordon, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Norman Pace, Ph.D., University of Colorado Boulder, share this year’s Massry Prize (and split a $200,000 honorarium). The prize was awarded to Knight, Pace, and Gordon for creating a technique to sequence a bacterial gene to understand what’s living in a sample, finding links between the human gut microbiome and obesity and malnutrition, and making tools for microbiome assessment widely accessible to other researchers. A potential win for people living with NMO.

The collective work of these three scientists is changing the way we look at our bodies and the diseases that plague us. According to a press release from the University of California San Diego, “allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and many other conditions have been linked to alterations in the human gut microbiome. Growing evidence suggests gut microbes also influence the brain, potentially affecting mood, behavior and psychiatric illnesses. Another example: A microbiome in the female reproductive tract may predict a woman’s probability of giving birth prematurely, according to recent studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

So it’s the things that you can’t see that often have the biggest impact on our lives. As research continues, we can thank these — and other scientists — for focusing on these invisible worlds to help us find more effective treatments (even cures) for a host of diseases.

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