The human microbiome: promising health discoveries

The human microbiome: promising health discoveries

As children, we are told that bacteria are bad for us. However, that’s not entirely true: of the tens of thousands of known strains, only a hundred-or-so are considered pathogenic.1 Furthermore, some bacteria actually defend us against pathogens, help us absorb nutrients and serve as indicators of poor health. Below is everything you need to know about this latest scientific discovery: the human microbiome.

What is the human microbiome?

The human microbiome represents the billions of bacteria, viruses and other micro-organisms that live on our skin and inside our bodies, like in our mouth, intestines, nose, etc.

Promising outlook

Thanks in part to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), several Canadian researchers are currently participating in an international project on the human microbiome in the hopes of identifying correlations between bacteria and their impact on the human body. The research has been fruitful so far and could help explain illnesses like asthma, cancer, celiac disease, allergies, depression, Crohn’s disease, type-2 diabetes and even obesity.

Although many studies are still being conducted, scientists have already learned quite a lot, like the fact that some bacteria protect us from pathogens. A good example of this is bowel flora. Bacteria in our intestines play a crucial role in our digestive process: they protect us by attaching themselves to the intestinal walls and preventing harmful bacteria from doing so.

A new way to better understand human health

Several scientists agree that the link between micro-organisms and human health, development and evolution requires delving into. According to them, a better understanding of these fundamental links could lead to a better understanding of human illness, development disorders as well as our vulnerability or reaction to potential pandemics.

Jeffrey Gordon, distinguished professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is convinced that the human microbiome is part of the future of medicine.

“For the longest time, we believed that health was purely a matter of physiology and human genetics. However, the 100,000 genes of the micro-organisms that inhabit our body may also have their say.”

In 2006, in his lab, Jeffrey Gordon made a startling discovery. People suffering from obesity have a different intestinal microbiome than those who don’t. Could modifying an obese person’s microbiome cure their obesity? Research could eventually yield the answer.

What about antibiotics?

Human microbiome research and its promising results raise another important question. Should we re-assess how antibiotics are used in modern medicine, especially since they tend to attack both helpful and harmful bacteria? Martin Blaser, Director of the Human Microbiome Program, says that “sometimes, antibiotics are necessary; sometimes, they save lives. However, this is the exception. Most of the time, we use them unnecessarily.”

While we wait for more developments, remember that Health Canada is a great source of information on antibiotics. For more information, check out healthycanadians.gc.ca.