Update on American Gut and uBiome Human Microbiome Research Projects

As many readers of this blog are probably aware, the potential roles of “good” and “bad” gut bacteria in gastrointestinal disorders like IBS is somewhat of a “hot topic” in recent years, capturing much attention in both scientific and mainstream media. This field of research appears to be promising, but despite the hype, actual scientific understanding is still at a very early stage.  On December 31, 2012, this blog reported that two separate teams of researchers, American Gut and uBiome, were using the Internet and the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to recruit members of the general public. For monetary donations of varying amounts depending on the number of test kit one wished to receive, one was able to submit stool, and/or mouth or skin samples for analysis. Participants of both projects were asked to complete detailed online surveys on diet, health and daily lifestyle factors that may affect the microbiome.

The initial Indiegogo campaigns ended in February 2013. American Gut attracted about 4000 people throughout the U.S. in Phases I and II, began shipping kits this past spring, and recently began releasing preliminary general results. Individual results will be available to the specific participants over the next several months.  uBiome’s approximately 2500 recruits recently began receiving their kits and providing their samples and questionnaires. Both projects are currently continuing to invite public participation.

Both American Gut and uBiome welcome those who are currently healthy and those with medical conditions. In Phase III of American Gut, over 6000 U.S. resident adults and children older than 3 months have signed up.  uBiome is open to people from any country in the world where postal regulations allow transport of kits and biological samples.  Both American Gut and uBiome have privacy policies whereby samples will be coded and personally identifying information will be protected according to standard research protocols and U.S. health privacy laws.

Although this unconventional recruiting approach differs from standard, controlled clinical trials, these are legitimate research endeavors involving collaborations among scientists and social scientists associated with well-regarded academic, medical and scientific research institutions. Donated samples for American Gut are received and coordinated by the University of Colorado at Boulder, but will also be used by researchers at more than two dozen sites in the United States, Belgium and Australia. uBiome is located in the San Francisco Bay Area of the United States, but involves people with ties to several countries. According to the uBiome website, its founders and scientific advisors have varied high-level expertise and honors in biochemistry, biophysics, molecular cell biology, biotechnology, medicine, computer science, economics, entrepreneurship and social innovation.

It should be emphasized that although each team of researchers will provide participating donors with individual analyses of their own or their participating family members’ samples, and other reports about their research findings in general, these do not constitute formal recommendations or means of prevention, diagnosis or treatment of IBS or any other medical condition. Scientific understanding of the human microbiome has not reached that point yet. Readers of this blog post who choose to volunteer should do so in the spirit of, in the words of uBiome, “citizen science,” the public good and future understanding of how the microbiome works and influences human health. With that in mind, these appear to be very interesting opportunities, and IBS Impact wishes all the involved researchers useful insights and progress toward those ends.

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