How can animal models be used to study the human microbiota? A roundtable from the Charles River Short Course.

The human microbiome, those trillions of bacteria and other tiny organisms living inside and outside our bodies, are an important driver in human health and not just because they outnumber our own cells by as much as 3 to 1.

When our gut microbiota are thrown out of balance evidence suggests that it also promotes the development of irritable bowel disease. The connection doesn’t end there. Aberrations in the microbiome have been linked to other gastro-intestinal disorders as well, and conditions as varied as depression, anxiety, autism, diabetes and obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and perhaps some cancers. Some of these potential associations may be a bit of a stretch, but the fact is there is now a whole community of scientists who see the microbiome as ripe for exploration.

Several microbiome-related products in clinical trials (for IBD and Clostridium difficile) and new collaborations being formed between startups and larger pharma companies to develop new products. And most science meetings have at least some reference to the microbiome, including the Charles River Short Course, a four-day lab animal science conference that made the microbiome the topic of its keynote.

So we were curious? How can animal models be best used to study the human microbiota, and what are the specific challenges in using animal models for the development of microbiome-based therapeutics. To get at these questions and others, Eureka gathered together several scientists at the Charles River Short Course who work in different parts of the microbiome space—three of whom delivered talks—for a videotaped roundtable discussion. The panel included:

  • Philip Damiani, PhD, an embryologist who has worked extensively in the field of assisted reproductive technology and animal husbandry for a wide variety of animal species, and lectured about the specific challenges laboratories face in maintaining germ-free colonies that are used to study the role and function of gut microbiota and its association with disease.
  • Kathy McCoy, PhD, an immunologist from the University of Calgary who directs their Western Canadian Microbiome Centre Germ-free Program specializes in investigations of mucosal immunology, development of the immune system and allergic disease, and lectured about talked about how the microbiota can educate and shape the developing immune system at different stages of life.
  • David Cook, PhD, a veteran scientist and entrepreneur who serves as Executive Vice President of R&D and Chief Scientific Officer at Seres Therapeutics, a leading developers of microbiome-based products with candidates for IBD and C. diff in clinical trials, whose keynote address centered on how the microbiome, which has co-evolved with all of its mammalian hosts, presents particular challenges for modeling in animals.\
  • Steve Festin, PhD, Senior Strategic Technical Product Manager in Research Models Services at Charles River, who moderated the roundtable.