Martha Carlin started The BioCollective in June, 2015 to give more tools and information to researchers trying to study the role of the gut microbiome in chronic diseases. Her study of genetics, nutrition, biology, chemistry, neuroscience and epigenetics began in 2002 when her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Martha saw the gut’s connection to chronic diseases after reading Dr. Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes in 2014, later connecting it to Dr. Filip Scheperjans’ research on the microbiome and PD. She also learned that access to samples was holding back progress and started The BioCollective, along with Dr. Jack Gilbert at The University of Chicago, to solve this problem.
The following has been paraphrased from an interview with Martha Carlin on November 29th, 2017.
Chronic diseases have been linked to all sorts of health problems, vitamin D deficiency, inflammation, etc. Why did you decide that the gut microbiome was the most important target?
Our gut is where we come into contact with so much of the external environment through the food and water we take in. It is also where the evidence comes home to roost. I believe that it is going to prove to be the best map for understanding what is going on inside the body. Our gut is our internal pharmacy where food and drinks are transformed into vitamins, hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes. In order for us to be healthy we must restore the function and balance of this vital organ.
What results have you seen so far and where do you see this going?
We just got some data back from our PD cohort. Comparing them to our controls we see a distinct difference in certain antibiotic resistant genes. One of the area we have been looking at is antibiotic exposure, not only ones prescribed to treat an illness but also ones we get from our food and water. Tetracycline, for example, is usually no longer prescribed for humans but but it is one of the primary antibiotics used as a growth promoter in farm animals for the last 50 years. We see it in the samples we have. We believe we are going to continue to see how antibiotics introduced through our food and water have shifted our internal ecosystems and impaired biological functions as a result.
Have you noticed any particular differences in samples between people with PD and healthy controls?
There is already quite a bit of published research on this, in particular the work of Dr. Filip Scheperjans has shown that there are correlations between certain strains of bacteria and Parkinson’s disease. However the other studies done don’t entirely agree on the specific strains but they do show differences between the bacteria in the guts of people with PD and healthy controls. These studies also vary geographically and we may find that there are differences between, say European PD microbiomes and the US ones. It is promising that we are seeing distinct differences. I believe it will not be long before we will have early indicators from the microbiome that could help us turn back the tide and prevent people at risk from getting Parkinson’s
My husband has had about 80 samples studied and through that we may have identified some biomarkers of disease progression, as well as bacteria that are working hard to try to address a problem and maintain health, but it is still a little to early to tell.
Are you also going in to therapeutics?
We formulated a probiotic to target sugar metabolism. One of the issues with PD is metabolic dysfunction, so we developed a general probiotic that converts glucose and fructose into the prebiotic mannitol that feeds a better profile of good bacteria in the gut and helps them outcompete the bad bacteria. Though it is a general probiotic that targets general metabolic health and not specifically designed for PD. We do not have plans to go down a drug path because it takes too long and probably isn’t the ideal path for pre and probiotics. Mannitol has also been shown in a mouse model to reduce the formation of fibrils that produce alpha-synuclein aggregates. This research was the basis for our approach to developing the pre/probiotic formula. It will be marketed as a probiotic for metabolic support.
Based on a person’s samples do you make any recommendations to them?
Today, we can make general recommendations about how to change your diet, water quality and probiotics. The science is still too new and making a personalized therapy plan based on their samples is a little too complicated for us to be able to do at the moment. But this is where the science is going. We think that within the decade healthy and sick people alike will look at their microbiome at least once a year to ensure they are maintaining a healthy internal ecosystem. The nice thing about the microbiome is that it can be manipulated and improved more easily than turning on and off gene expression. Since we are more microbial than we are human, I believe this area of personalized health holds great promise.
What would you recommend for people who don’t have access to The BioCollective?
We can send people with Parkinson’s a specialized kit if they email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the UK there is a company called Map My Gut that does microbiome sequencing through physicians. There is also my My MicroZoo in Amsterdam that is available throughout Europe. We are also trying to move forward with a bio collective in Asia through a University partner there in 2019.
Are you also looking into the gut-brain axis?
There has been a great deal of work in this area in the last five years. We are talking to the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale and working with them to collect samples for gut-brain axis research.
There is a new book out from researchers in Cork, Ireland called the The Psychobiotic Revolution that talks a lot about the gut-brain axis. There is also an emerging field called microbial endocrinology that really was the precursor to the gut-brain axis. For example from that we learned that stress produces chemicals that feed certain bacteria in your gut and this can trigger a cycle of stress and anxiety. Stress is also one of the potential contributors to Parkinson’s risk.
What would someone learn from analyzing their samples everyday?
You can see how travel and diet changes your sample. We tell people all the time, don’t eat food that is bad for you, but unless you can really show them the evidence it is difficult for them to see how what they take in everyday affects them. There are clear connections in the microbiome to diets that are high in fat and sugar. Diet can change your microbiome quickly. That’s why we feel bad right after we eat things that we know aren’t healthy for us or we drink too much alcohol. The nice thing is the microbiome is a map to help us see in the data why that is happening and what chemistry we are creating from what we eat and drink. If people regularly saw their stool analysis they would take what they put into their bodies much more seriously.