The Rutgers University Microbiome Program
Harnessing microbiomes to improve human health
Despite 20th-century medical breakthroughs, many diseases have increased alarmingly, including obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies, autism, and autoimmune diseases, with causes unknown and cures unavailable. Now, it is clear that our microbiome, the group of diverse microorganisms that lives in and on us, plays a critical role in our health, affecting metabolism, immunity, and even our brains. In short, a healthy microbiome keeps us healthy. We now know that, with urbanization, we have lost diversity of our microbiome. The gut microbiota of patients often teems with pathogens, which may drive or aggravate illness. Our hypothesis is that we have lost some of the beneficial strains whose functions are essential in keeping us healthy.
What if you could know which beneficial strains are missing and how you are predisposed to particular diseases? What if you could adjust your microbial makeup to its healthiest composition by taking personalized treatments? The Rutgers University Microbiome Program aims to address such questions by examining microbiome roles in human health. The program will position Rutgers as a health-oriented and globally recognized center of excellence in microbiome research: basic, translational, and clinical. Through the program, we will promote preservation of microbiome diversity globally, develop novel solutions for restoring and maintaining healthy microbiota, train students to be the next generation of physicians and scientists in microbiome research, and accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries to products and practices that improve human health. The program will target broadly, including microbiomes in soil, plants, animals, and the environment, which also are experiencing serious diversity loss. Finally, the program will serve as an engine for economic development across New Jersey.
In today’s world, children grow up without deformed bones caused by a lack of vitamin D or “cloudy” sinuses from infections. Nearly all women survive childbirth. Eighty-year-olds, once consigned to rocking chairs, are swatting tennis balls, often with the help of a metal hip joint.
Yet within the past few decades, amid all of these marvelous medical advances, we appear to be getting sicker. Daily headlines announce the gravity of modern conditions: obesity, childhood diabetes, asthma, hay fever, food allergies, esophageal reflux, cancer, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, autism, and eczema. In all likelihood, you, someone in your family, or someone you know is afflicted. Unlike most lethal diseases of the past that struck relatively fast and hard, these are chronic conditions that diminish quality of life for decades.
Why are all of these maladies rapidly rising? Is it mere coincidence? If there are 10 newly increasing diseases, are there 10 separate causes? Or could there be one underlying cause fueling all of these parallel increases? A single cause is easier to grasp. What cause could be grand enough to encompass asthma, obesity, esophageal reflux, juvenile diabetes, and food allergies, among all of the others? Many theories have been proposed to explain each disorder. We need to look closely at the microorganisms that make a living in and on our bodies, the massive assemblages of microbes within us known collectively as the microbiome. A wide body of evidence links our changing microbiomes with each of these diseases. Conversely, by better understanding our microbiome, we are beginning to make advances in the treatment of cancer and of certain infectious diseases.
The microbiome is a frontier in both scientific and medical research with great promise in the coming decades. Imagine if, by profiling your microbial makeup, you could know which beneficial strains are missing and what your predisposition to particular diseases is. And what if you could adjust your microbial makeup to its healthiest possible structure by taking personalized treatments? Exciting, isn’t it?
Studies by Rutgers microbiome scientists support the missing microbe hypothesis—that we are losing essential members of a healthy microbiome due to a modern lifestyle and medical practices such as surgical birth, antibiotics, and inadequate diets. Missing beneficial microbes may lead to our gut microbial ecosystem being overtaken by pathogens, which predispose us to chronic diseases. With decades of microbiology experience, three internationally recognized scientists—Martin Blaser, Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, and Liping Zhao—constructed the novel and multidisciplinary Rutgers University Microbiome Program. The mission of the program is to transform microbiome research, training, and therapeutics to improve human and global health and advance public health initiatives. This program will change the landscape of microbiome research by focusing on identifying and characterizing the key members of the gut microbiome essential for keeping us healthy; training future generations of physicians and scientists in microbiome basic, translational, and clinical research; making Rutgers a center of microbiome education; accelerating the translation of scientific discoveries to therapies; forging industry and academic partnerships; and fast‐tracking development of treatments to directly impact human health globally.
Developing a world-class microbiome program will require building collaborative partnerships between academics and industries, particularly pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and healthy foods sectors, and working with industry and philanthropists to pursue novel and innovative microbiome studies. The program has already begun to work with faculty and through initial collaborations with venture capital and industry leaders.
There has never been a better time for Rutgers to directly impact health worldwide as a leader in this important frontier of science. Like electronics in the 1950s, a broad scientific frontier, a few universities emerged as leaders in that seminal field. Rutgers can be one of the global leaders in microbiome research.
Eveleigh-Fenton Chair of Applied Microbiology
Zhao is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology; a senior fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research; editor of two high-impact microbiome journals, ISMEJ and Microbiome; and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Center for Microbiome Research and Education of the American Gastroenterology Association. He has published many papers in high-ranking journals, which has made him a world-renowned scientist in the human microbiome field. His pioneering research applies metagenomics-metabolomics-integrated tools and dietary interventions for manipulating gut microbiota to improve human metabolic health. His research has led to important discoveries, such as endotoxin-producing opportunistic pathogens in obese individuals that confer increased obesity risk and inflammation, and that dietary modulation of gut microbiota can significantly alleviate metabolic diseases, including a genetic form of obesity in children and type 2 diabetes in adults. Science magazine featured his work on combining traditional Chinese medicine and gut microbiota to fight obesity.
Henry Rutgers Professor of Microbiome and Health
Dominguez-Bello joined Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in 2018. She is the director of the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and a senior fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. She has served on the editorial boards of several journals and has more than 150 scientific publications. Her research focuses on the microbiome development from birth, functions for the host, impact by practices that reduce microbial transmission or disrupt the microbiota, and strategies for restoration. She also studies how Westernization changes environmental microbes and human exposures, integrating the fields of anthropology and architecture/urban studies into microbial ecology. Before joining Rutgers, she worked at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research, the University of Puerto Rico, and the New York University School of Medicine.
Director, Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine
Blaser holds the Henry Rutgers Chair of the Human Microbiome at Rutgers, where he also serves as professor of medicine and pathology. Previously, he served as chair of the Department of Medicine at New York University. A physician and microbiologist, he has been studying the relationships we have with our persistently colonizing bacteria. For the past 30 years, his research has focused on Campylobacter species and Helicobacter pylori, which are model systems for understanding the interactions of residential bacteria with their hosts. Over the last 20 years, he has studied the relationship of the human microbiome to health and diseases such as asthma, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. He has served as the adviser to many students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty. He is chair of the Presidential Advisory Council for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. He holds 28 U.S. patents and has written more than 600 original articles. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and has received the Alexander Fleming Award and the Robert Koch Gold Medal for his contributions to medical research. He wrote Missing Microbes, a book targeted to general audiences and translated into 20 languages.