New Year, new vision: Meet a scientist who spends his days studying the microscopic world of the microbiome
Trillions of beneficial bacteria live in and all around us. What if we could use them to our advantage, to do everything from prevent diabetes to reduce inflammation? Dirk Gevers, Ph.D., Global Head of the Janssen Human Microbiome Institute, shares how his team is already well on that research path.
Indeed, translating microbiome science into crucial insights about human health is all in a day’s work for the experts at the Janssen Human Microbiome Institute (JHMI), which examines how the community of microscopic organisms that live in, on and around us may influence our health and well-being.
Founded in 2015, the JHMI partners with academic institutions and entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions that could potentially address everything from lung cancer and type 1 diabetes to chronic, low-grade inflammation, all with one aim—halt disease progression.
“To our knowledge, Janssen is the first biopharmaceutical company to dedicate a human microbiome institute to explore the potential of the microbiome for such a wide array of diseases,” says Dirk Gevers, Ph.D., Global Head, Janssen Human Microbiome Institute, part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. “Our intent is to harness the promising scientific potential of the microbiome with the goal of making a difference in the lives of people, while benefiting the healthcare industry.”
On the heels of a new collaboration with microbiome therapy discovery company BiomX, which is focused on predicting which individuals with inflammatory bowel diseases might best respond to treatment, we spoke to Gevers as part of a monthlong series of interviews with movers and shakers in healthcare innovation to find out why the microbiome is such a promising area of research when it comes to managing our health—and what’s on the horizon for 2019.
Microbiome research is an emerging—and exploding—area of science. What are the implications for human health, and how is Janssen leveraging this potential?
Over the past 100 years the medical world has been focusing on a few dozen key pathogens that cause diseases. But in the past decade or so, new technology has given us a more detailed idea of the thousands and thousands of organisms that live in and on our bodies, known as the microbiome—and that’s led to a big conceptual shift.
We now recognize that the microbes present in and on us are not always pathogenic—most of the time they’re neutral or even beneficial. So we need to approach our health with more precision and preserve those beneficial microbes—or even leverage the ways in which they could benefit our health.
Today there are more than 200 start-ups developing more than 400 different microbiome-based products. Most of them are focused on treating diseases in a traditional way, but at the JHMI, we also believe in the unique value that the microbiome can offer in disease interception, that is, arresting the disease prior to the appearance of symptoms. And those are the solutions we are targeting.
The science is still emerging, but in the last year, we’ve gotten a much better idea of what a microbiome product that could potentially correct this trajectory toward disease looks like, whether that’s a therapeutic, like a probiotic that’s delivered as a pill, drink or lotion; a diagnostic tool or digital app designed to personalize microbiome solutions; or even precision editing of the microbiome, which removes certain organisms that have been shown to be detrimental to our health.
One area that JHMI is focused on is type 1 diabetes. Can you tell us more about that?
It’s important to understand that the microbiome can be influenced by diet, stress and our environment, and in the past 50 years, much has changed in those areas.
Medication and disease can also impact the microbiome, which in turn impacts the body. Microbes send signals to the host—your body—in multiple ways, whether that means producing certain hormones or modulating our immune systems to protect us from infections.
Our hypothesis is that microbiome development in early life is critical for a healthy immune system. If we can make sure the microbiome develops properly, we believe we can influence what would otherwise be a trajectory toward disease.
Well before type 1 diabetes is diagnosed, you start seeing changes that could indicate someone is at a much higher risk for developing it. If, for example, we see the development of a particular antibody occurring in a baby’s body toward the end of his first year, there’s more than a 90% risk of him developing type 1 diabetes.
A good example is type 1 diabetes, which results when the body starts to see its own insulin-producing cells as foreign and attacks them. Ideally, we’d like to prevent this “immune misunderstanding” from occurring in the first place.
Well before the disease is diagnosed, you start seeing changes that could indicate someone is at a much higher risk for developing type 1 diabetes, regardless of a genetic predisposition. If, for example, we see a process called seroconversion—the development of a particular antibody—occurring in a baby’s body toward the end of his first year, there’s more than a 90% risk of him developing type 1 diabetes, whether that’s in a few months or 10 years.
The JHMI is working to track this kind of development during the first years of life, to assess abnormalities and intercept any changes from taking the route to disease.
What else are you excited to focus on in 2019 and beyond?
We’re also looking at how the microbiome connects with low-grade, chronic inflammation, which we see playing a role in metabolic disorders, cancer and neurodegeneration. We believe that the microbiome could potentially provide an interesting option to explore the early interception of lung cancer, in particular.
A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that biologics—drugs produced from living cells—targeting low-grade inflammation bring benefits in the reduction of the incidence of lung cancer. That opened up an interesting opportunity: It’s a proof of principle that the trajectory of lung cancer can be changed, so we have the potential to intercept and prevent the disease through our work with the Johnson & Johnson Lung Cancer Initiative by harnessing the promise of the microbiome.
In 2017, we partnered with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and found that an algorithm based on sequencing the DNA in an individual’s microbiome could deliver a personalized nutrition plan to help control glucose levels, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and obesity. That microbiome-based intervention resulted in a company called DayTwo, and the microbiome-based nutritional advice product is now on the market in the U.S. We also currently have a clinical trial underway to test if we can change glucose control in a way that would reduce type 2 diabetes.
Another area where there is significant opportunity is targeting bacterial pathogens and pathobionts (a potentially disease-causing organism) of various human microbiomes using precision therapies. Our recently announced agreement with Locus Biosciences, Inc., through our Janssen Infectious Diseases Therapeutic Area, is pursuing this with the company’s unique CRISPR-Cas3 Phage (crPhageTM) platform, which aims to destroy with precision specific unwanted bacteria without harming other bacteria.
The potential impact that the microbiome can have on course-correcting diseases makes me very excited. I came to Janssen because they have a very bold vision of how the microbiome can impact diseases going forward, and therefore we have built a very strong team with deep expertise. We’re positioned to remain agile and react to this very dynamic field by connecting quickly with new opportunities.
I’m looking forward to what’s next.