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GEM Community of Excellence Funds 5 Interdisciplinary Projects

Published August 10, 2016

Five research projects that aim to improve our understanding of the human microbiome have been selected to receive the first round of funding from the Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM).

“There is a lot of evidence that the microbiome is affecting human health, but we don’t have a clear idea of how. ”
GEM co-director and associate professor of biochemistry

GEM is an interdisciplinary community of University at Buffalo faculty and staff dedicated to advancing research on the genome and microbiome. The projects, together awarded nearly $200,000, will study how the interplay of the human microbiome and the environment affect a person’s risk for certain diseases.

Projects Could Help Develop Personalized Medicine

The human microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that reside in and on the human body. Understanding the relationship these microorganisms have with our bodies may enable development of personalized medicine and empower individuals to have greater control over their health.

“There is a lot of evidence that the microbiome is affecting human health, but we don’t have a clear idea of how,” says Jennifer A. Surtees, PhD, GEM co-director and associate professor of biochemistry.

“That is why we want to push scientists and clinicians from different areas of expertise to work together and drive research that helps us understand what is happening.”

Studying Microbiome Related to Pregnancy Outcomes

Recent studies have found that the placenta, once thought to be a sterile environment, may be subject to regular bacterial invasion. Whether this invasion is beneficial or harmful — or both — is unknown.

A team of researchers aims to find out. The study is led by Vanessa M. Barnabei, MD, PhD, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology; and Robert Genco, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Oral Biology and director of the UB Microbiome Center.

The research will assess the medical and oral health of women throughout pregnancy and at the time of delivery. Then it will analyze the relationship between microbial patterns and pregnancy outcomes, especially preterm birth.

Other investigators include Adina A. Ionescu, MD, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology; Tammy Thompson, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatric and Community Dentistry; Karen Falkner, senior research scientist in the Department of Oral Biology; James N. Jarvis, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics; Michael Buck, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry; and Yijun Sun, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.

Research on Airway Microbiome, Lung Cancer and COPD

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have a higher risk for lung cancer, regardless of their age or smoking history.

A group of researchers theorizes that the risk is due to the interaction between the airway microbiome and the body’s immune-inflammatory response, which may be increasing the creation of malignant airway epithelium, a tissue that interacts with respiratory pathogens.

The researchers, led by Manoj J. Mammen, MD, research assistant professor of medicine, will compare the sputum samples — mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract — of 182 people with COPD that were collected monthly between 1994 and 2014.

The group will identify microbes and interactions that are associated with lung cancer development in participants who developed lung cancer and analyze these samples against those of the people who did not develop the disease.

Other investigators include Sanjay Sethi, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, along with Buck and Sun.

Investigating Gut Microbiome and Obesity

A group of researchers believe that obesity and our ability to lose weight may be tied to the many microorganisms that live in our guts.

A recent study revealed that the intestines of obese patients contained a severely reduced number of microbes. This internal ecological disaster could be attributed to the lack of keystone species, or microorganisms whose activity and abundance are necessary for the stability of the microbiome community.

Researchers will examine changes in the gut microbiome during the development of obesity in rats fed a high-fat diet to identify keystone species. They then will monitor if increasing keystone species helps reduce weight and reverses the mass extinction of organisms in the gut.

The study is led by Lixin Zhu, PhD, research assistant professor of pediatrics. Additional investigators include Genco, Buck and Susan S. Baker, MD, PhD, professor and co-chief of the Division of Gastroenterology in the Department of Pediatrics.

Analyzing PPI-Related Gut Microbiota

An imbalance of microorganisms in the gut is linked to increased autoimmune disease and colitis, an inflammation of the colon, which is bad news for people who use proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), a group of drugs used to treat ulcers and acid reflux.

PPIs cause an imbalance in the gut microbiome by altering stomach acidity and increasing the time it takes microorganisms to move through the colon. Their use has also been shown to increase the progression of chronic kidney disease.

Researchers will compare the gut microbiomes in patients with diabetic kidney disease who either consume or don’t consume PPIs to better understand if the altered microbiome has an effect on the disease.

The study is led by Rabi Yacoub, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine; and Lee Chaves, PhD, research assistant professor of medicine.

Studying Protists in the Oral Microbiome

Of all the microbiomes in and on the human body, the one found in the mouth is the most diverse, comprised of bacteria, viruses, fungi and more.

Bacteria are responsible for two of the most common diseases known to man: tooth decay and gum disease. However, scientists have not yet created a method that can reliably predict the severity and onset of dental disease based on the amount of bacteria in the mouth.

Protists, a group of varied, single-cell organisms, can significantly impact the size of a bacterial population, but few studies focus on their role in the oral microbiome.

A team of researchers aims to identify and quantify the protist population in the mouth and examine the impact of the bacterial-protist relationship on oral health. The findings could aid in the diagnosis of oral diseases and lead to interventions that prevent disease development.

The study is led by Gerald Koudelka, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, and Mira Edgerton, research professor in the Department of Oral Biology.

Community of Excellence Undertakes Global Challenges

GEM is one of UB’s three Communities of Excellence, a $9 million initiative to harness the strengths of faculty and staff from fields across the university to confront the challenges facing humankind through research, education and engagement.

Along with Surtees, GEM is led by Timothy F. Murphy, MD, executive director, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research and SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine; and Norma J. Nowak, PhD, co-director, professor of biochemistry and executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.