A one-of-a-kind facility has just opened in Calgary to help researchers better diagnose, treat and prevent everything from food allergies to metabolic disorders, autoimmune deficiencies and brain diseases.
Located at the University of Calgary, the $12.2-million, 10,000-sq.-ft. International Microbiome Centre is a germ-free lab and the only one in the world capable of producing live, real-time cellular imaging.
The highly controlled environment uses a multilayered ventilation and filtering system, positively-pressured rooms and stringent shower-in procedures to keep all sorts of microorganisms out.
But it's not the ability to observe germ-free mice that most excites Kathy McCoy, director of the new lab at the University of Calgary.
"The real power is being able to put the microbes back in and follow what's happening," she said.
Researchers will now be able to observe what effects, if any, those communities of tiny organisms have on the animals' overall health.
The 'forgotten organ'
The microbiome is a group of trillions of bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi that live in and around us and interact directly with our immune systems.
It protects the body from pathogens, cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic inflammatory diseases, including allergies, brain disorders and autoimmune disease, McCoy said.
Researchers don't precisely understand how different microbiome compositions can make us more or less susceptible to disease, but they do know there's an underlying connection.
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"Any chronic disease you can imagine, if you look at the microbiome, that microbiome looks different in a healthy person."
In that sense, the microbiome is the body's "forgotten organ," McCoy said.
"If any organ in your body is damaged or diseased, your whole body will suffer. It's the same with the microbiome."
Chronic illnesses 'absolutely skyrocket'
McCoy says that since the 1990s, chronic diseases across the board have begun to "absolutely skyrocket," particularly in Western countries.
While scientists know genetics underlie many of these diseases, it's unlikely our gene pool has changed very much over the past two decades, McCoy said.
"Diseases are always a product of our environment and our genes," McCoy said.
"What has changed? Our environment has changed massively."
The antibiotic 'atomic bomb'
McCoy believes that the diversity of human microbiomes has decreased over time, weakening our immune system's ability to protect us.
She attributes this loss of diversity in part to diet changes and advances in medical treatment.
Individuals are consuming more processed foods, more sugar, more fat and less fibre, McCoy explained.
This, combined with an "alarming" uptick in the use of antibiotics, has had serious consequences on our microbial environment.
"Antibiotics are like an atomic bomb to your microbiome," McCoy said.
"One dose of antibiotics is believed to change your microbial composition, and it never goes back to its original state," she explained.
Harnessing the microbiome
McCoy believes the microbiome may be the single most important factor that we can change, not just to prevent disease, but to promote human health and wellness.
"How can we harness the power of that microbiome?"
First, we need to understand the exact molecular and cellular mechanisms by which it shapes our immune system and influences our health, she said.
Researchers believe the microbiome is especially important in early life, because it educates the development of our immune systems.
Now, McCoy and her colleagues hope to expand that knowledge and apply it to realms far outside human biology.
Lessons learned could help shed light on how to increase crop and livestock production, find energy solutions for carbon dioxide conversion and more reliably transform biomass into an alternative energy source.
"For me, now the really exciting part begins," McCoy says.