MSD scientists probe how our bodies’ bugs impact immunity and disease

Our researchers are pioneering new ways to research and understand the biology of new diseases by looking inside the human gut

November 4, 2020

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At the MSD Research Laboratories (MRL) Exploratory Science Center (ESC) in Cambridge, Mass., our researchers are pioneering new ways to research and understand the biology of new diseases by looking inside the human gut.

Our bodies are host to trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi. These organisms are collectively known as the microbiome, which is increasingly recognized as an important regulator of the immune system and critical functions such as metabolism, digestion and blood clotting. In fact, some refer to the microbiome as a newly discovered organ.

“The emergence of compelling evidence for the role of the microbiome in both health and disease and its potential in multiple therapeutic areas made it natural for us to pursue this dynamic area of research,” says Daria Hazuda, vice president, infectious diseases discovery and chief scientific officer, ESC. “The microbiome affords us an opportunity to explore an exciting new world of emerging biology.”

Understanding how the microbiome influences human biology

In recent years, research has indicated that the microbiome influences many areas of human biology and has been implicated in an increasing number of diseases, ranging from cancer to obesity.

“Studying the microbiome adds a new dimension to our current research and development processes,” says Gokul Swaminathan, associate principal scientist, investigational biology. “The role of the microbiome in regulating the immune system and how it contributes to vaccine responses is of particular interest right now. We are conducting both preclinical and clinical research to better understand how vaccine responses differ in the very young, in whom the microbiome is evolving, versus in older people given that the microbiome changes with age.”

Gokul Swaminathan conducting tests with micro-organisms

Gokul Swaminathan conducting tests with micro-organisms

A MSD scientist working in anaerobic chambers

Xue Liang working in anaerobic chambers

Pioneering a new model system

As a new area of research, the microbiome requires new ideas and models of disease. The ESC team is addressing this directly by developing novel data analysis capabilities and unique research technologies in collaboration with the broader MSD network.

Microbiologists, cell biologists and engineers from across the MSD network pioneered the development of a model system — which mimics the interface between the gut microbiota and the body’s cells — to conduct experiments designed to teach us more about the communication between the microbiome and the host.

“This innovative model allows us to study interactions between anaerobic bacteria and host cells, which will propel the way we think about using microbiome data to uncover new mechanisms,” explains Gokul.

Studying the human gut may prove to be just one of a number of ways our exploratory research may bring the next life-changing solutions for patients.