Microbiome & Probiotics
If there are more microbial cells in us than human cells, are we man or microbe? With 150 times more genetic power, it surely isn’t surprising the extent to which microbes influence our life, health and even decision-making. The collective microbiome is essential for maintaining health and survival. Our microbes modulate our immune system to judge friend from foe, breakdown and absorb nutrients for which we lack enzymes as well as provide a living barrier to pathogens on our skin, mucus membranes and gut.
With the improvement in next-generating sequencing, areas traditionally considered sterile like breast tissue, stomach, brain and the bladder have been found to have their own microbiome. Numerous studies have discovered that our gut flora is tied to virtually every process in our body and scientists have demonstrated that changes in composition of the microbiome can correlate with disease states. Dr. Gregor Reid proposed the concept of a ‘normal flora’ in the 1980s while studying the pathogenesis of urinary tract infections, but the ability to utilize microbes to benefit the host (probiotics) is now worldwide, scientifically sound and growing rapidly in importance.
In 2001, Dr. Reid chaired a United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Panel and came up with a definition for probiotics that still stands today: “Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Now, the Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotics at Lawson is vibrant and part of an international network of excellence in science and translation.
The Canadian Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotic Research is located at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario. Established in 2001 through funding by the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, the Centre was originally created to bring together experts in Canada who specialize in probiotics and their application. Ever evolving, the Centre has championed extensive studies and collaborations in the fields of probiotics, microbiome and next-generation sequencing to become recognized internationally.
There are now a number of centres across the country with expertise in microbiome research. We pride ourselves in spanning basic to translational research and developing excellence in transcriptomics, metabolomics and pioneering new lines of enquiry.
The Centre’s pursuit of excellence in basic discovery, developmental and translational research will lead to tangible benefits for humans, and recognition around the world.
What we do and why we do it
The answer to why we do our research is simple – we want to make a difference in human life. That may seem altruistic, but it is what drives us. Yes, we love research, studying problems, finding solutions and disseminating new information to others. It makes each day different and exciting. But, the foundation and core of our efforts are to make advances that will be relevant to the well-being of humanity. Within that philosophy is the recognition that we must impact people wherever they live, and even more so those whose day-to-day challenges far outweigh those of our own in Canada.
We ask “real-world” scientific questions and translate our knowledge in the hope of someday benefitting people. We do this through collaborations with outstanding scientists, physicians and professionals all over the world. At any given time, we have projects going on in several countries.
Our core labs are at St. Joseph’s Health Care London and Western University in London, Ontario where students undertake studies in microbiology, metabolomics, metatranscriptomics, genomics, bioinformatics, nutrition and biochemistry. All students are encouraged to contribute ideas to their projects, learn how to discuss and present data and link their work to human well-being and their own career path.
Since our inception, we have worked with industrial partners, recognizing their role in translating bench science into practice. The support of donors, especially the W. Garfield Weston Foundation who helped create a Research Chair in Urological Sciences with affiliation to our Probiotics group, makes a huge difference to what we are able to achieve. In the end, it is collective spirit that moves us forward.
Our research can be broken down into three general themes:
1. FEMALE HEALTH
Can we manipulate the microbes inside us to improve the reproductive and urogenital health of females, ultimately improving human longevity? This emphasis on female health dates back over 30 years with our studies on using lactobacilli to prevent urinary and vaginal infections. These continue today and include expansion into breast and urinary cancer, lactation, and kidney stones.
2. AFFORDABLE PROBIOTICS
Can we create affordable probiotic food to improve well-being and reduce ‘toxins’ in the general population and people in the developing world? The outstanding work of our Western Heads East students in Eastern Africa setting up probiotic yogurt kitchens, epitomizes our belief that small changes can lead to great things. On a global scale, impacting 350 people in a community with one kitchen, seems infinitesimal, but we view it as one life at a time. Aligned with Yoba-for-Life, we aim to reach one million people in Eastern Africa in five years, as well as bring the community kitchen concept to low income families in Canada.
3. HOW DOES THE MICROBIOME INFLUENCE LIFE?
As the area of probiotics has exploded in recent times, so too has the need to understand scientifically how these organisms function, and also to prove in appropriately designed clinical trials what types of benefits they deliver. We are using genetic and bioinformatics tools, and unique models such as the fruit fly, to find out which organisms are present during health, disease, post-treatment and over time in men, women and children. We are investigating how microbes function in their environment and in foods, and what benefits they accrue to the host, including blocking pathogens, modulating immunity, and breaking down or inhibiting toxic reactions.