Harnessing the power of the microbiome at U Calgary’s new germ-free facility
The research could help us better understand and treat diseases such as asthma, autoimmune disease and cancer
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A new research facility at the University of Calgary (U of C) is attempting to understand how microbiomes can negatively or positively impact the health of an individual – possibly revolutionizing the way chronic disease is treated.
The International Microbiome Centre (IMC), located across several labs and facilities at the university, officially opens on Nov. 9.
Every individual has a unique microbiome; a community of trillions of bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi that live in and around us and interact directly with our immune systems.
“We know the microbiome is hugely powerful – every single chronic disease that is known to man is associated with an altered microbiome,” said Dr. Kathy McCoy, scientific director of the IMC. “Now the research needs to catch up so we can understand the mechanisms.”
One of the multi-disciplinary research centre’s crown jewels is a germ-free facility where researchers will investigate the microbiome of plants, animals, and the physical environment in a completely sterilized setting.
At the germ-free facility – the largest of its kind at an academic institution in the world – researchers will be able to control every aspect of the environment in order to study specific changes in an organism’s microbiome – rodents, in this case.
“If we want to harness the power of the microbiome, we need to understand what it does – how does it influence our body systems? – and the best way to do that is to use a model system where you take away all of this bacteria, and then you add back the ones you want to study,” McCoy explained.
“That's going to allow us to understand exactly what (the bacteria are) doing in the body, so we can harness the power for our health.”
The implications of this research could be significant, including helping us better understand and treat diseases such as asthma, autoimmune disease and cancer.
“Maybe we (could) make sure every baby born is given the right microbiome at birth … or maybe we can change the microbiome of people who have chronic disease – if we know a microbiome is making their disease worse, maybe we can change that,” McCoy said.
“So to do that, we built this facility.”
Only a handful of places in the world have the capacity to do kind of research that will be conducted at the germ-free facility – one of its specialties is live cell imaging, where researchers can track cells and molecules as they move through the body in real time, and observe any reactions.
Dr. Shaunna Huston, director of programs and business at the IMC, said the facility was first conceived when the U of C began focusing on the research potential of microbiomes.
“Here at the university one of our greatest strengths is studying chronic diseases, inflammation and infection,” Huston said. “We realized the mircobiome is very important (to that), so we decided we wanted to build an enabling platform.”
Approximately 12 - 15 people will work in the germ-free facility, including McCoy and other researchers who been recruited from around the world.
Before entering the sterilized area, everyone has to take a shower that includes a 90 second body scrub.
Then, they don medical scrubs, coveralls, a hairnet, a face mask, and what Dr. Shaunna Huston described as ‘sterilized crocs.’
Air is filtered as it enters and leaves different rooms, which are kept at a positive pressure so air is always flowing out.
“Every room has HEPA filters, that’s the finest filter that won’t let microorganisms through,” Huston said.
“The air pressure is extremely important because although we have those filters through the separate rooms, we want to make sure the (most critical rooms) have the highest pressure – so all the air is moving down towards the areas that are less sterile.”
The less sterile areas she referred to would be rooms where microbiomes are being handled as part of the research.
“The whole idea is that everything needs to be compartmentalized, and that’s why we have multiple multiple barriers as well, so that if something were to happen we don’t compromise the whole facility,” Huston explained. “If we find something (that’s not supposed to be there) we can just close the room down, clean it out and sterilize it again.”
The IMC has three applied research objectives: new diagnostics and therapeutics for human health related to anti-microbial resistant pathogens; analyzing and manipulating various crop and livestock microbiomes to increase food productivity and resistance to disease; and looking at how microbiomes could convert biomass into alternative energy sources.
It was funded by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the U of C.