Where the microbiome meets the immune system

By Rob Clancy, staff writer

When it works as intended, the human gut is rarely given a thought – but that is rare luxury for the 130,000 Australians with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Associate Professor Samuel Forster is unlocking the mysteries of the microbiome and the immune system to help people with IBD like Marisa (see story below).

Gut microbiome expert, Associate Professor Samuel Forster and IBD patient Marisa
L-R: Associate Professor Samuel Forster, Marisa Coniglione

“Our microbiome research is focused on understanding the naturally occurring bacteria we carry with us every day, which play a critical role in keeping us healthy,” A/Prof Forster says.

“We know these hundreds of gut microbiome bacterial species interact with the immune system and regulate processes such as inflammation. But we don’t yet know the ‘correct’ combination of bacteria for anyone at any particular time, or how to maintain it. “

“Despite their importance for our health, many gut microbiome microbial species are being lost due to changes in our lifestyles, diet and other factors they rely on to survive. We aim to collect these species, understand how they can be beneficial and ensure they are preserved for future generations of medicines.” Associate Professor Samuel Forster.

Immunology and the microbiome

A/Prof Forster’s work saw him published in two prestigious Nature group journals in 2022 and he was one of two Australian scientists to be awarded a CSL Centenary Fellowship of $1.25 million over five years.

Using a combination of computational analysis and microbiology to identify gut microbiome bacterial strains that influence disease, he collaborates closely with Paediatric Gastroenterologist Dr Edward Giles from Monash Health, and the Adelaide-based biotechnology company BiomeBank to develop new therapies for IBD.

With cutting-edge technologies, including the gut-on-a-chip, which allows individual gut microbiome bacterial species to be studied in the lab, A/Prof Forster also seeks to answer fundamental questions about the immunology of the gut and its microbiome.

Microbiome, AMR and IBD

The potential benefits will be felt in IBD, as well as addressing the emerging threats from antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and many more areas of medical need.

“My team is working towards a future where we will have a comprehensive bank of purified microbiome derived bacterial isolates, the ability to accurately measure a person’s microbiome state, replace the missing species and maximise health for every individual.”

Marisa’s IBD story

Marisa shares her IBD story and hope that microbiome research will help IBD patients

Stomach pains, hospitalisations, teenage years blighted by illness and the puffiness caused by steroid treatments – this is the reality of living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), according to 23-year-old nurse, Marisa Coniglione.

IBD – the collective term for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – is a chronic, painful and disruptive inflammation of the lining of the gut, with no known cause or cure. Treatment involves expensive immune suppression that can have life-changing side effects.

Marisa has lived with the social, psychological and emotional toll of IBD since the age of 11. While three-hour long infusion treatments given every eight weeks have made the condition more manageable, she still struggles with flare-ups and side effects.

“I feel awful and there are many risks that come with a suppressed immune system such as frequent infections. I’m battling a bacterial throat infection right now.”

She hopes A/Prof Forster’s gut microbiome research will lead to treatments that make it easier to enjoy life and give future patients fewer difficulties in their teens through to adulthood.

Hudson Institute Annual Report 2022

Collaborators | Monash Health; Wellcome Sanger Institute (UK)

Funders | ARC; NHMRC; Walter Cottman Endowment; Kenneth Rainin Foundation (USA)

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Hudson Institute communications
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e: communications@hudson.org.au

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