Fun fact: there are 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut, meaning there are 10 times more bacteria in you than there are human cells in your body. Together, these bacteria form your gut microbiome, and it turns out that the diversity and types of bacteria play a big role in whether you are in good health.
Dr. Richard Fedorak, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and gastroenterologist at the University of Alberta Hospital, is interested in what bacteria are present or missing in colon diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, and colon cancer. This can be a powerful diagnostic tool, especially for predicting imminent diseases, and managing them early.
However, measuring gut bacteria is both difficult and expensive to do. This is why Fedorak started a collaboration with other researchers in the field of metabolomics: the measurement of small molecules in your urine, stool, or blood that are the byproducts of the metabolism of gut bacteria.
One application is early detection of colon cancer. Fedorak explains, “Colon cancer occurs from a small benign growth in your colon called a polyp. Well, if you can identify the polyp before it turned into cancer, that would be great! Because then you can simply go in with a colonoscopy and remove that polyp, and be done with it, and you would never develop cancer… And lo and behold we were able to do that. We were able to use the science in metabolomics, identify metabolites that would predict if you would have a polyp. With high accuracy, we could then go in and remove that polyp, and we would have prevented colon cancer from occurring.” This technology has already been translated into a urine test that is in clinical use at the University of Alberta.
Note: In November of 2018, Richard passed away at the age of 63. Learn more about his work and how it continues to change lives for the better in our memorial post.