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Collaborative Teams Awarded Funding to Investigate How the Microbiome Shapes Health

Sophia Friesen

Three research teams in the Mountain West Microbiome Alliance have received seed grants to kickstart collaborative investigations addressing the impact of the microbiome on human health.
The alliance brings together scientists across the Mountain West to investigate the health effects of the microbiome: the amassed bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that live in or on the human body. Many of these microbes are neutral or actively beneficial for health, playing important roles in metabolism, immune regulation, and protection against harmful infections. The Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease (3i) Initiative at University of Utah Health was instrumental in founding the alliance.
Daniel Leung, MD, steering committee member for the alliance and associate professor of internal medicine at U of U Health, says that the full health impacts of the microbiome are just starting to be uncovered, as are the ways to leverage new knowledge to improve health care. “Clinical applications thus far are still in their infancy,” he says. The newly funded projects aim to improve understanding of the microbiome and translate those discoveries into better clinical care. 
The seed grants were funded by the Cumming Foundation and are designed to foster collaboration. Each funded research team includes investigators from multiple institutions, including the University of Utah.

Panel of three side-by-side profile photos of the seed grant awardees.
Principal investigators of the awarded projects. Left to right: Gianna Hammer, PhD; Tiffany Weir, PhD; Amiko Uchida, MD

Each project will explore a different aspect of the relationship between health and the microbiome:

  • Amiko Uchida, MD, (University of Utah) leads the project, “Dynamics of diet-induced microbial metabolites in eosinophilic esophagitis.” Uchida’s team aims to understand how diet affects microbial byproducts that can influence immune system function. The team will investigate these immune system effects in the context of a common but poorly understood allergic disorder that affects the esophagus, with the aim of improving treatment for this condition.
  • Gianna Hammer, PhD, (University of Utah) leads the project, “Modulating age-associated changes in the meninges of the brain by altering the life experience of the gut.” Hammer’s team is interested in how signals originating from gut microbes can affect immune cells in the lining of the brain as individuals age. These immune cells can have an impact on anxiety-like behaviors, social behaviors, and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Tiffany Weir, PhD, (Colorado State University) leads the project, “Diet and microbiome interactions: application in post-traumatic stress disorder (DMAPS).” Inflammation is a risk factor for stress- and trauma-related disorders like PTSD, and signals from the microbiome can either trigger or relieve inflammation, depending on which microbes are present. Weir’s team will investigate this connection further by measuring the effects of a diet including a high diversity of plants on microbiome diversity, inflammation, and quality of life for people with PTSD.

There are about as many microbial cells as human cells in the human body, and scientific knowledge of how the two interact is far from complete. New research partnerships—like those supported by the seed grant—will be essential to address this knowledge gap, Leung says. “Changing human health through the microbiota can only happen through interdisciplinary collaborative work.”