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The Making of Medicine

Microbe ‘Microbreweries’ to Improve Our Health

Everyone knows about microbreweries that create craft beer. But what about microbreweries to improve our health? One of our young scientists is making it possible.

Greg Medlock just received his PhD this spring from UVA, but he has already snagged a highly competitive grant from Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The $100,000 in seed funding will let him identify how to optimize the production of 10 different gut microbes so they can be custom-blended to battle disease.

The ability to churn out bugs in bulk will be essential as we develop a better understanding of the microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that live in and on us. Scientists are increasingly coming to appreciate the importance of these microorganisms in maintaining good health. Discoveries at UVA alone have linked gut health to autism, depression and cancer, for example.

Medlock will focus on finding the most efficient ways to grow the microbes together, so that nothing goes to waste. “The first goal is to grow each of the gut microbes across many different conditions and try to identify the compounds that they produce and consume,” he told me. “The second goal is to use those relationships [between what they’re] consuming and producing to put them together in the same culture so that they share resources efficiently. … When the microbes share the resources, you get more bang for your buck.”

Our understanding of the microbiome is still in its relative infancy, but scientists are very excited about the potential to target it to benefit patients. “The very earliest microbiome-based products for clinical use are just coming through the pipeline now,” Medlock said. “But since we know that the microbiome is involved in so many different conditions, we should have strategies for creating them on demand. If we lower some of the barriers, then companies can be quicker to commercialize products, and that will get these treatments to patients sooner.”

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