Mysteries of the Microbiome

Microscopic closeup of microbes

A prominent EWU scientist and his students, Marcos Monteiro among them, explore new ways of thinking about
a devastating neurodegenerative disease.

By Charles E. Reineke

Thanks to advances in genetic sequencing technology, the human gut microbiome — that vast ecosystem of bacteria and other microbes that live in our GI tract — has recently emerged as a key area of interest to scientists around the world. Among the most intriguing areas of investigation involve the role gut bacteria may play in human pathologies, and not just infectious diseases.

Here at Eastern, Javier Ochoa-Repáraz, an assistant professor of biology, is among those scientists who are exploring how the gut microbiome may play a role in neurological disorders, specifically those involving neurodegenerative autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

Autoimmunity, at its most straightforward, involves a failure of the immune system to distinguish between healthy and diseased cells and tissues. No one is sure why such failures occur, or how to stop autoimmune attacks against healthy cells. But in a 2018 paper in the journal Medical Sciences, Ochoa-Repáraz summarized a host of intriguing insights suggesting the microbiome may play a key role.

Chief among these is that autoimmunity disorders such as MS appear to have a “bidirectional relationship” with the gut microbiome; that is, microbial abnormalities may play a role in development of MS, while progression of the disease itself later reshapes the microbiome’s structure and function. This is important because it suggests that new therapeutic interventions could be effective in both preventing and treating MS.

“If the bidirectional association between the gut microbiome and disease is better understood by researchers — including our lab and research students at EWU — clinicians could better interpret the changes of the microbiota observed,” he says. “For example, perhaps we could determine whether clinical remissions or relapses are associated to a different microbiota, or anticipate the next stage of the disease based on the composition of the microbiota. We might also be able to better understand why some immune-mediated drugs are more effective with some patients than with others.”

Ochoa-Repáraz says his ultimate goal, one he’ll pursue with the help of students like Monteiro, is to locate a specific set of microbial targets to develop a probiotic treatment for MS patients.
A recently awarded grant from the National Institutes of Health will not only advance this goal, but will provide a means of getting more student researchers — particularly undergraduate researchers — involved in the project. “The NIH project is specifically designed to train undergraduate students in neuroimmunology, multiple sclerosis and the microbiome,” Ochoa-Repáraz says. “For the next three years we will likely work with more than a dozen students.”

Working alongside these undergraduates will be more advanced students like Monteiro, he says. Theirs is an especially critical role. “It would be impossible to conduct any meaningful research at EWU without their help. In our case, undergraduate students work together with graduate students like Marcos to conduct all the laboratory experiments. They also take part in lab meetings and discuss the results.”

The experience, he adds, will do more than just provide his lab with skilled labor. “It will,” he says, “teach students whether basic science is something they find interesting and like working on, and whether they can see themselves doing this work in the future. It will also provide a background on a very impactful disease that affects many people, particularly here in the Northwest, and on the study of the microbiome, a research area receiving more and more attention.”