There is growing evidence that cancer, depression, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, asthma, and more are greatly influenced by the activity of bacteria in our guts. Some are hyping up this idea by calling the digestive tract our “second brain”. A team at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine at the University of Luxembourg has made a major, unique step forward which will enable scientists to look for further evidence.
Scientists need to accurately mimic how bacteria grows and how it interacts with food and medicine. “Growing bacterial cultures in the lab in a Petri dish can only give us basic understanding, and testing in germ-free animals contends with their physiology being different to that of humans, as well as the ethical concerns,” explained Paul Wilmes, head of the LCSB Eco-Systems Biology Group.
Systems biomedicine employs a variety of interdisciplinary techniques to find solutions. Professor Wilmes heads a group of natural scientists and engineers who for four years sought to develop an experimental system that closely replicates the gut. They were assisted by colleagues from the University of Arizona in the US. The result was “Humix”, which stands for “Human Microbial Cross-talk”. This allows intestinal cells to be grown and kept alive, then bacteria can be introduced and the interaction observed. Drugs or food can be added, and that too studied.
Humix has a square polycarbonate frame about the same dimensions as a beer mat. This frame supports semi-permeable membranes that form three parallel chambers. Human gut cells grow in the middle layer, fed by nutrients flowing in from the upper chamber, with bacteria cultivated in the lower chamber. Material interacts just as it does in our bodies. “Before Humix, nobody had been able to co-culture human and microbial cells while ensuring that the microbes grow under anaerobic [oxygen free] conditions as is the case in the gut,” explained Wilmes.
This “gut on a chip” device is unique, and is now being used exclusively by LCSB and University of Arizona research teams. For example, they are currently researching exactly how high-fibre food seems to prevent colorectal cancer.
It could also be a commercial success. “The reaction has blown my mind,” enthused Wilmes. “We receive about 10-15 expressions of interest a month from researchers, investors and companies that would like to use Humix.” For example, if the gut has the impact that is believed, it could be possible to develop drugs or even probiotic food that could help counter obesity, stress, diabetes, cancer, among other illnesses.
The technology might be world leading, but selling it to food and drug companies is a tricky, specialist business. Success would be great news for the advancement of science, and would be highly lucrative.