Scott Peterson receives grant to discover gut microbiome-targeted therapies

| Written by Jessica Moore
gut microbiome cartoon

The gut microbiome—the trillions of bacteria and other microscopic bugs in your intestine—is a hot topic in medical research. The number scientific studies showing that the balance of microbes affects health not just in the GI tract, but throughout the body is growing rapidly. Motivated by these findings, Scott Peterson, Ph.D., professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, is searching for ways to manipulate the microbiome to treat disease.

Because his work is so pioneering, he recently won a grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation to support a graduate student, Lisa Elmén, to carry out some very ambitious research. She’s looking for prebiotics—compounds that affect the makeup of the microbiome because they’re metabolized by some bacteria more than others—that can address underlying drivers of inflammatory diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s and colitis, autoimmune conditions and food allergies.

Despite their diversity, these diseases all have a connection to the gut—they’re associated with increased inflammation and permeability, or leakiness, of the intestine. That’s bad because it means foreign molecules from food and microbes can get into the bloodstream, which can trigger or worsen inflammation and cause the immune system to go awry. The main question Elmén will address is whether prebiotics effectively improve barrier function and whether this slows or even reverses disease progression.

“We’ve already identified a number of compounds that alter the gut microbiome in a way that we believe correlates with better intestinal integrity,” says Peterson. “This award will let us move on to the next steps, including examining whether these prebiotics alter disease severity.”

“It would have been very challenging to get this work funded through more traditional avenues, so this award is critical to advancing our research,” Peterson adds. “Leaky gut isn’t a widely recognized condition, and few clinicians test for it despite evidence that it contributes to disease. The prebiotics we hope to find could improve the health of millions of Americans.”