What if you learnt that the contents of your gut are as unique as your fingerprint? And what if that could help predict the future of your health?

Your microbiome – the bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live in your body – may offer clues to the probability you’ll suffer from a range of diseases from asthma to Parkinson’s. And the largest reservoir of these microorganisms is your gut. Scientists at the forefront of research in this area are using stool samples and advanced algorithms to peek into the gut-microbiota. In their opinion, comparing people with different health conditions based on their microbiomes can help in designing personalized treatments.

“We have explored some specific functional signals from the microbiome and designed a method to monitor gut health status,” says Dr Sharmila Mande, chief scientist at TCS Research, part of Tata Consultancy Services. “Our method can identify metabolic functions that need to be replenished or inhibited to restore microbial balance. This has implications for conditions that affect not only the gut, but also other organs.”

While linking imbalance in gut microbiome composition to gastrointestinal diseases, as well as diseases in other parts of the body isn’t new, the TCS researchers have pioneered a simple test that could signal future problems at an early stage. The Gut Health Score looks at stool samples to detect which microbes are living in the digestive tract and could provide an early risk assessment of deteriorating health, flagging up the need for further medical investigations.

Harnessing technology

Mande has been exploring the microbiome field for more than a decade. Next generation DNA sequencing technology allows for the study of the microbes without a microscope, and Mande’s team’s expertise lies in deciphering DNA sequence data.

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She and her team have not only developed several algorithms for microbiome analytics, but have also analyzed thousands of microbiome samples to understand correlations with health status. They have already filed multiple patents for their Gut Health Risk Assessment methods, which they hope will help in low-cost, non-invasive, monitoring of individuals and guide the design of personalized nutritional supplements as well as pre-biotic and pro-biotic interventions.

“The microbial communities in the gut vary due to many factors. Diet, ethnicity, different environmental factors, different health conditions, and so on,” she says. “But, there are some clear differences which we could identify between the diseased stool sample and the healthy one.”

While much of the work on stools and health has focused on assessing the pathogens present, Mande’s team are looking deeper into the metabolic functions performed by microbial communities and any indicators of disease associated with them.

The first part of the work centered on two major functions carried out by bacteria in the digestive tract: breaking down complex carbohydrates and fermenting excess proteins.

“We checked out the potential of the various bacterial groups that use these metabolites,” Mande explains. “Then we looked to linking them to multiple health conditions; and based on these functional links, we could devise a way to assess gut health.”

Lactobacillus is a friendly bacteria that is found in our digestive system.

Towards personalized healthcare

After making the initial connections, the TCS researchers cross-referenced their work with hundreds of publicly available data sets, and found that the Gut Health Score could indeed indicate a wide range of conditions including Inflammatory Bowel Disease, respiratory disorders like asthma, renal disorders, different types of cancers as well as brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease and many others.

The next phase of the work focuses on improving the accuracy of these predictions by incorporating additional functional roles of microbes and their relationships with different disorders.

It’s not difficult to imagine the real-world applications of such technology.

This non-invasive technology has the potential to dramatically simplify many routine diagnostics and screening procedures. Take the case of colon cancer screening. In the UK, where the disease affects about 1 in 20 people during their lifetime, the over 55 year are called for routine bowel cancer screening. Mande sees the potential for a stool-sample analysis to reduce the need for invasive and time-consuming inspections of the inside of the tract, like colonoscopy, that are currently carried out.

Routine stool sample analysis is also used as an indicator for colon cancer, but at present that only checks for the presence of blood in stools. Mande envisages a simple Gut Health Score check that uses stool samples to give an indication of the microbiome and associated risks as an initial step. And not only cancer, the potential of the same stool test to diagnose the risk of other medical conditions could also be far-reaching.

“This test will provide the first indications and suggest the person go for future tests,” Mande says. “Based on the score we can say what the likely outcomes are and what checkups may be needed.”

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With the technological advances and rapidly declining costs of DNA sequencing platforms, it will be possible to routinely sequence gut microbial communities in the near future. Using TCS’ gut health assessment method on such DNA sequence data will provide clues on the health of an individual and enable low-cost, non-invasive health monitoring. This will further help healthcare professionals and doctors to suggest personalized medical interventions and therapeutic regimes, and even take a step towards preventive healthcare.

“This is the first indication that will help the person go for future tests,” Mande says. “Based on the score we can say what the likely outcomes are and what checkups are needed.”