Every time we eat, legions of friendly microbes that live in our guts help us in countless ways. They’re a major line of defence that protects us from harmful microbes that come in with our food that would otherwise set up camp. And they also help us digest food that we can’t break down properly on our own, creating new compounds that are crucial to our nutrition and health.
Biomedical engineer Carolina Tropini wants to help them.
“One of the things that is very exciting about this from a bioengineering perspective is the fact that we can actually modify our microbiota to keep us healthier. It’s a little bit like our personalized pharmacy in our gut,” says Tropini, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of British Columbia.
“Anything that our microbes produce makes it into our blood system the same way that a drug that we take by mouth does, and so wouldn’t it be exciting if we can actually control these microbes to produce compounds and drugs that make us healthy?”
Unfortunately, modern life hasn’t been kind to these friendly microbes. Our highly-processed diets, courses of antibiotics, and various lifestyle changes have all disrupted the average gut environment.
“That doesn’t support the normal microbiota that we should have,” says Tropini. “And so that’s where bioengineering comes in.”
Some of the advances we’ve made are net positives. Antibiotics may wipe out good microbes while fighting infections, but we also suffer far less from infectious disease. Understanding the connections that link these microbial communities to human health could help restore them.
“One of the ideas that I’m really excited about is using bacteria within ourselves as both sensors and actuators. One of the things that right now medicine doesn’t have is really an ability to sense the environment and respond to it,” says Tropini.
“So let’s say that the type of drugs that we’re taking, even though they may be released in different parts of our gut, they’re actually not responding to the environment. They’re passive agents. But instead if we were to use bacteria as a way to deliver these drugs, we could actually encode them to detect the environment and release things when needed. So I think this is going to be really where personalized medicine goes.”