Getting in touch with our inner germs

NIH kicks off the Human Microbiome Project with first awards

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BETHESDA, Md.—The Human Microbiome Project, which will lay a foundation for efforts to explore how complex communities of microbes interact with the human body to influence health and disease, got its first big push out of the nest when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced in early October that it had awarded its first monies to projects related to the effort.

Launched in 2007 as part of the NIH's Roadmap for Medical Research, the Human Microbiome Project is a five-year effort that will produce a resource for researchers who are seeking to use information about the microbiome to improve human health.

This first batch of funding, estimated to be up to $21.2 million, will support the development of innovative technologies and computational tools; coordination of data analysis; and an examination of some of the ethical, legal and social implications of human microbiome research.

"The development of new tools and technologies is central to our ability to meet the goals of the Human Microbiome Project," says Alan Krensky, M.D., director of the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. "An exceptional amount of information will be generated by this project and we need robust technologies and analytical tools that are equal to the task."

"Developing new and more cost-effective technologies will be essential to applying knowledge about the human microbiome to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide array of conditions," adds NIH Director Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni.

Initially, researchers plan to sequence 600 microbial genomes, completing a collection that will total some 1,000 microbial genomes. Those data will then be used to characterize the microbial communities present in samples taken from healthy human volunteers. The samples will be collected from five areas of the body: the digestive tract, the mouth, the skin, the nose and the vagina.

"There are so many variables that you could look at, from people with different diets to people in different workplaces to people on different drugs and so much more," notes Jane Peterson, associate director for extramural programs at NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute and project leader for the Human Microbiome Project. "In the end though, we just wanted to start with a solid baseline, so we're recruiting people from two cities to start and sampling five body sites. Frankly, that's daunting enough with a task as big as tackling the entire human microbiome."

"In fact, we're not even looking for 'healthy' volunteers, as the various experts in the different body areas we're looking at kept coming up with too many exclusion criteria that would have made our job harder—since no one could agree on what 'healthy' was," she jokes. "So in the end, we decided to come up with criteria for 'normal' people by reasonable clinical standards, which is, frankly, close enough to healthy for most purposes."

After researchers generate profiles of microbial communities in these "normal" people, they will conduct demonstration projects to sample the microbiomes of volunteers with specific diseases. This will allow researchers to see if there are changes in the microbiome at particular body sites that correlate to specific diseases.

"We realize that many might criticize the way we're choosing to stratify initial subjects according to a standard of 'normal'," Peterson admits. "No one will be completely satisfied with our decision because of the limited scope. But in the end, we have to limit ourselves somehow with something this complex, or you'll paralyze yourself before you start, and not have anything to get the ball rolling."

In related news, a global collection of scientists met in mid-October in Heidelberg, Germany, to announce the formation of the International Human Microbiome Consortium, an effort that will enable researchers to characterize the relationship of the human microbiome in the maintenance of health and in disease. NIH is one of the participants in that consortium.

In addition, NIH signed a letter of intent recently with the European Commission, officially agreeing to combine the data from the Human Microbiome Project and the EC Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract (MetaHIT) project. DDN

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