Ireland continues to be a leader in gut health research, largely due to 15 years of innovative work being undertaken at APC Microbiome Ireland, UCC, the largest and oldest Microbiome research institute in the world. The Microbiome refers to the collection of bacteria within the human intestine that number in their trillions.
In Devere Hall, UCC, from 9:30am today, Friday, October 11, some of the world’s leading researchers in areas relating to gut health are gathering for a symposium entitled ‘Challenges for Microbiome Science’. Topics include — Virome (the viruses within us); the use of microbiome to inform precision nutrition; integrating omics; and challenges in conducting microbiome research in Africa.
The speakers have travelled to UCC from research institutes in the USA, EU and elsewhere.
Prof Paul Ross, director of APC Microbiome Ireland, will present on ‘Opportunities for microbiome-based antimicrobials’ where newly discovered alternatives to antibiotics will be showcased.
“We believe that some of the solutions for better gut health lie in mining the microbiome to come up with new anti-microbials as alternatives to antibiotics,” said Prof Ross.
“APC Microbiome is one of the largest Science Foundation Ireland centres — a recognition of the impact this area is having in science and industry.
APC Microbiome is currently working on research projects with more than 30 companies, from multinational food and nutrition corporations down to indigenous SMEs. APC has produced three spinouts (notably Atlantia Food Clinical Trials Ltd), and will continue to produce spinouts in areas ranging from drug discovery and functional foods through to human clinical trials.
In 2018, ten of APC Microbiome’s researchers were named in the list of Highly Cited Researchers, compiled by Clarivate Analytics, a list of influential researchers leading the way in solving the world’s biggest challenges. The list includes 17 Nobel laureates.
APC Microbiome’s research feeds into industries such as infant formula, gut health-enhancing yogurts and other consumer foods. Another key project lead out of Teagasc relates to methane production in animals by targeting the microbiome of the rumen.
This project is finding solutions to inhibit the bacteria which produce methane in the rumen. These trials will have particular resonance for Ireland, where an ambition to expand the national dairy herd runs counter to a national climate action goal to reduce GHG emissions.
The UCC symposium brings together many of the world’s leading experts in this area of research.
The enthusiasm for the sector’s potential to achieve meaningful progress and positive impacts on human health, nutrition, animal welfare and the environment is very evident in the way Paul Ross talks about this research.
Prof Ross has held various management roles in Teagasc and UCC over the last 20 years, notably leading Food Research at Teagasc followed by five years as head of the college of Food Science and Engineering in UCC.
He was part of a group of like-minded scientists at Teagasc and UCC who conducted research into probiotics and functional foods which began 20 years ago and which led to a sharpening focus on gut health and the formation of APC Microbiome.
Much of the groundbreaking work at APC has been led by Prof Fergus Shanahan, a leading gastroenterologist whose vision has guided APC to become world leading in this area. Professor Ross, a microbiologist originally from Turner’s Cross in Cork and who has also held lead research roles in the USA, took over the role of APC director in June.
“I am delighted to be doing what I really like,” he says of his still relatively new role.
“I’ve been in management for 20 years, but I’ve also been active as a researcher into gut health and alternatives to antibiotics and food preservatives — a programme which is a longstanding partnership with Prof Colin Hill.
“I am an applied scientist who has always endeavoured to work on fundamental scientific questions of relevance to food and medicine.
"]There is huge interest now in the microbiome. Indeed, a lot of Food and Pharma industries have their own strategies for microbiome — which is reflected in the huge industrial interest in APC Microbiome Ireland.”
Infant formula companies are particularly interested in APC’s research. Ireland produces about 15% of the world’s infant formula exports.
Catherine Stanton’s research is looking at topics which influence the development of the microbiome from birth such as delivery mode, nutrition and use of antibiotics and how that might impact on longer term health.
In contrast, Professor Paul O’Toole’s studies are looking at how the microbiome deteriorates later in life.
"We are looking at areas like the problems associated with overuse of prescription antibiotics, and how indiscriminate use can cause disruption in the gut, for instance with pathogenic bacteria causing diarrhoea,” says Prof Ross
Bacteria generally live in complex communities (not on their own), and we are only beginning to understand how these complex communities are related to the human health condition.
Thus, studies into the microbiome also feed into related studies into diabetes, heart health, brain health and, of course, out across a range of food-related studies into gut health.
In this context, it is understandable that the symposium on ‘Challenges for Microbiome Science’ is subtitled ‘Mining Microbes for Mankind’.
The various presentations being delivered are looking in a very practical way at the interface between food and medicine and how it can be influenced through microbiome science.