GI research aims to crack the communication code in our gut

Laurentian biologist Jeffrey Gagnon hopes that his research into the microbiome living in the gastrointestinal tract can lead to a healthier — or less pharmaceutical — way of treating diabetes and obesity.

Research could lead to some important discoveries about how to treat diabetes, metabolic diseases

A Laurentian University biologist is trying to find out if the micro organisms in your gut talk to each other. The answer could be an important one for those struggling with obesity and other diseases. (Getty Images)

Laurentian University biologist Jeffrey Gagnon hopes that his research into the microbiome living in the gastrointestinal tract can lead to a healthier — or less pharmaceutical — way of treating diabetes and obesity.

But first, what is the microbiome?

Think of it as an ecosystem living in your gut. The microbiome is a collection of microorganisms living in the gastrointestinal tract, and can include bacteria and fungus. 

For the past ten years, microbiome research has been attracting attention in the medical field, and Gagnon said he hopes to show how influential the microbiome can be in determining our health. 

"We now know that the microbiome plays a major role in several health systems," Gagnon said, "including the cardiovascular health, diabetes and metabolic health."

Gagnon's focus is on the metabolic system, and how gut microbes can be a driving factor in our health, including diabetes and obesity.

As the microbes communicate, or talk to one another, it's possible that they can influence or regulate things like insulin or glucose levels.

"We can collect feces from animals and humans and analyze using genetic techniques and see who's there," Gagnon said.

"[The] more important part of the research is to find out what they are doing."

What are those bugs actually doing?

Imagine air pressure systems changing the environment around you, darkening skies, lowering temperatures, causing high winds. Your gut responds the same way to the microbiome reacting with other organisms in the system.

Gagnon says that research shows how illness actually transforms the microbiome in the GI tract especially in a diseased state.

"For instance, obese individuals have a different microbiome than lean individuals," Gagnon said, "now the time has come where we have to figure out 'what are these bugs actually doing?'"

To conduct his research, Gagnon induces an "obesity phenotype" in rats, by giving them a diet where the majority of calories come from saturated fats. In two months, these animals have impaired glucose tolerance and visibly increased fat mass.

Gagnon refers to this, half-jokingly, as "The Western Diet."

What about my yogurt?

On the heels of recent food trends, Gagnon warns that it's tricky to make claims that probiotics in food can provide an immediate difference.

"Pre- and probiotic is a major industry," Gagnon said,  "Danone even marketed their own bacteria."

"The claims were that, if you ate this yogurt for two weeks you would notice improvement in your GI health," he said.

The result, or lack of results, prompted a class-action lawsuit against the company.  

"Our microbiome is established early in life. Many other factors [influence] who gets to colonize our GI tracts."

"Bacteria has a role to play, but it may be a little more tricky to change the microbiome than eating a probiotic yogurt," he said.

The upshot, or 'gut-shot'?

Gagnon said that people who receive treatment for Type 2 diabetes already are exposed to the GI hormones that are naturally occurring in the gut.

He hopes his research can demonstrate how these microorganisms can communicate with our body. And, if he can accomplish that naturally, less pharmaceutically, then "there's a very interesting possibility for the treatment of metabolic diseases."

On this week's Summer U feature, we spoke with Laurentian University biologist Jeffrey Gagnon. Professor Gagnon thinks his research could be important for those struggling with obesity and other diseases. He spoke with the CBC's Peter Williams. 7:34

With files from Peter Williams. Edited/packaged by Casey Stranges.


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