Microbiome Profiling: Big Business, but What About the Data?

John Watson

Disclosures

June 26, 2017

In This Article

Contemporary research tells us that the gut microbiome is a virtual Rosetta Stone of human health, playing a potentially meaningful role in the development of illnesses as seemingly disparate as autism[1] and colorectal cancer,[2] along with dozens of other conditions. It is a commonly held belief by those in the field that unlocking the mysteries of this hundred-trillion-microbe interconnecting environment may one day provide vital new therapeutic interventions.

With a future this bright, it was perhaps inevitable that microbiome research would swiftly leap out of the lab and into our shopping carts. That moment appears to have arrived, with a variety of companies now offering at-home microbiome testing kits that promise to give us a snapshot of the teeming world within our guts and all of its prognostic power. The question is, has the science progressed enough to make these tests something more than high-end novelties?

What's Being Offered

Many microbiome testing companies' services resemble traditional lab work. The nearly 5-year-old uBiome Inc. offers a test that must be prescribed by a doctor and assesses for 26 bacteria targets that are clinically actionable, such as Salmonella enterica and Clostridium difficile.

According to Daniel Almonacid, PhD, vice president of bioinformatics at uBiome, these targets are anything but novel.

"When people hear the word 'microbiome,' they think it's a new organ of the human body that was just discovered," he said. "The pathogens detected in the uBiome report have been known for over 100 years, and doctors know exactly what to prescribe in each of those conditions."

The company's test, which is certified by the American College of Pathology, will not identify any bacteria without established links to specific conditions in humans. uBiome has shored up its clinical reputation through efforts like a 2015 partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a study of hospital-acquired infections.[3]

As people's awareness of the pivotal role that their microbiomes play in their health and well-being increased, so too, understandably, did their desire to actively monitor and positively intervene in it.

The increasing reach of these personalized microbiome testing companies wouldn't be possible, however, if this once-obscure concept had not entered the mainstream through traditional scientific media outlets and their more hyperbolic counterparts found across the Internet. As people's awareness of the pivotal role that their microbiomes play in their health and well-being increased, so too, understandably, did their desire to actively monitor and positively intervene in it.

The recently launched start-up Thryve is one such company that aims to meet these customers' needs. Thryve offers a monthly subscription service whereby its customers send in fecal samples obtained on pieces of toilet paper and in return receive reports summarizing the sequencing results. (uBiome offers the similar Explorer™, a tool that tracks your gut microbiome over time and allows you to compare against averages.) Thryve's user-friendly end product summarizes each subscriber's overall "Gut Wellness Score," and along with general lifestyle advice, the company offers its own line of probiotics.

According to Thryve CEO and cofounder Richard Lin, there are generally three types of customers taking advantage of such services: biohackers satisfying their own curiosity and augmenting their biomes as they see fit; mothers caring for children with chronic conditions; and patients with gastrointestinal-related conditions themselves.

Lin emphasizes that Thryve isn't seeking to replace medical professionals in any capacity. However, he notes that some customers are turning to companies like his after feeling poorly served by the medical establishment.

"With these chronic illnesses, patients are essentially being sent away by doctors who are saying, 'Here, take this pill. We don't know what's wrong with you, but this can help your symptoms.' And so these customers are trying to look for new tools to be able to help them learn more about what's going on in their bodies and any sort of dietary or supplement interventions that can help them."

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