U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Research Updates

Winter 2010

Research Initiatives: NIH Human Microbiome Project jumpstarts wave of pioneering medical research


bacterium, Enterococcus faecalis
The bacterium,  Enterococcus faecalis, which lives in the human gut, is just one type of microbe that will be studied as part of NIH's Human Microbiome Project. 

Courtesy: United States Department of Agriculture​

Most human bodies have more microbial cells than human cells but, until recently, scientists had few ways to study the microbiome outside of growing a select few types of microbes in test tubes. But our ability to enter the micro-world has expanded, along with the possibilities for medical breakthroughs. 

“DNA sequencing technology has advanced and is continuing to advance very rapidly, so now we can get large parts of the genome sequences of the vast majority of the microbes that live in our intestines,” said Dr. Robert Karp, program director for genetics and genomics in NIDDK’s Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition. “We’re absolutely certain these microbes have an impact on many, many aspects of our health. But until now we’ve had no way of studying the vast majority of them. Now we can get a much more comprehensive picture.” 

To take that picture, the NIH Common Fund launched the Human Microbiome Project, which aims to understand the role of microbes in human health and disease. 

To that end, NIDDK will be overseeing four grants to study the microbiome. 

Dr. James Versalovic of Baylor College of Medicine will examine pediatric irritable bowel syndrome and recurrent abdominal pain by sampling the intestinal microbiome. The causes of these diseases are unknown. “One hypothesis that we haven’t been able to test very effectively until now is that the intestinal microbiome is involved,” Karp said. 

Dr. Vincent Young of the University of Michigan will work to determine the cause of a condition called pouchitis. Patients suffering from severe ulcerative colitis are often treated by surgical removal of the colon. Surgeons then create a new rectum for the patient by constructing a pouch from part of the small intestine. Unfortunately, that pouch frequently becomes inflamed, typically requiring further surgery. By studying the microbiome in patients before and after the procedure, in parallel with the development of inflammation – and by comparing the microbiome in patients who develop pouchitis and those who do not– the researchers hope to determine whether the microbiome plays a role in causing this disease. 

With a grant co-funded by the Common Fund, NIDDK and the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, Dr. Gary Wu of the University of Pennsylvania will be examining the relationship between the intestinal microbiome and diet in youth who have Crohn’s Disease. He’ll study incoming patients and aims to learn why treatment with an elemental diet of liquid nutrients manages some – but not all – cases. 

Dr. Claire Fraser-Liggett of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, will be examining the relationship between Crohn’s disease, the intestinal microbiome and bacterial proteins, comparing samples from patients with Crohn’s disease of varying presentation and severity. Her research is co-funded by the Common Fund, NIDDK and the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 

Karp said there’s room for new microbiome-related proposals in many areas of interest to NIDDK. “Certainly into the near future, I expect to see a huge expansion in the research in this area, simply because it’s so unexplored,” he said. “There are just lots of opportunities.”   

The NIH  Obesity  Research Task Force

is developing an updated  Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research,  which will serve as a guide to accelerate a broad spectrum of research on obesity. The task force is co-chaired by NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers, along with the NHLBI and NICHD directors. The task force received input from scientists, professional and other health-focused associations, and other groups and individuals. Currently, the task force is revising the draft strategic plan based on input received during a public comment period. The final version will be posted on the NIH website. 

A strategic plan for  diabetes  research

is also underway. Under the auspices of the statutory Diabetes Mellitus Interagency Coordinating Committee (DMICC), chaired by NIDDK, the institute has spearheaded the development of  Advances and Emerging Opportunities in Diabetes Research: A Strategic Planning Report of the DMICC.  Council members, researchers, voluntary group advocates, professional societies and members of the public have contributed to the plan, which will guide federally supported diabetes research over the next decade. The plan is nearing completion and will be posted on the NIDDK website. 

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