January 2015 Update on American Gut, British Gut and Australian Gut Human Microbiome 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, one of them known as the American Gut Project, were using the Internet and the crowdfunding sites 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 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 in the spring of 2013 and as of this blog’s last update on October 6, 2013, had begun releasing preliminary results and individual reports to the early volunteers. Since then, in Phase III, cumulatively, over 7000 people have signed up, American Gut has revamped the participant questionnaires, and the coordinating primary investigator Rob Knight, PhD has moved recently from the University of Colorado at Boulder to a new lab at the University of California at San Diego. American Gut has forged a partnership to form the British Gut Project, headed by Tim Spector at King’s College London, MB, MSc, MD and FRCP, and Australian Gut is in the early stages of launch. See the January 18, 2015 National Public Radio interview with Dr. Knight at “One Scientist’s Race to Help Microbes Help You.” A December 20, 2014 interview with Prof. Spector can be found on the Gut Microbiota For Health blog

Both American Gut and British Gut welcome those who are currently healthy and those with medical conditions, both adults and children three months and older.  One does not need to be a U.S. or U.K. resident, but participants outside those countries may face high extra costs to ship their samples quickly and safely to one of the labs. Samples will be coded and personally identifying information will be protected according to standard research protocols and health privacy laws in the given countries.

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 will be received and coordinated by Dr. Knight’s lab at the University of California at San Diego, or British Gut samples by Prof. Spector’s lab at Kings College, London, but will also be used by researchers at more than two dozen sites in several countries.

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, the results are not intended to be, nor are they specific enough to guide prevention, diagnosis or treatment of IBS or any other medical condition. Scientific understanding of the human microbiome has not reached that point yet. While functional GI researchers and the updated 2014 American College of Gastroenterology guidelines on the treatment of IBS  (see the August  10, 2014 post) acknowledge that some people with IBS benefit from the use of probiotics, there are tens of thousands of individual strains and combinations of strains, only a handful of which have undergone clinical trials specifically with people with IBS. There is no way at this time for researchers and clinicians to target which ones may be helpful to a given individual with IBS. The microbiome studies in this post are not IBS-specific. They are broad, open source microbiome research of all people with and without known medical conditions who have volunteered themselves and  have not been selected by the researchers to control any particular demographic parameters. Readers of this blog post who choose to participate in American Gut, British Gut, or Australian Gut  should do so in the spirit of the public good and future understanding of how the microbiome works and influences human health. With that in mind, these are very interesting opportunities, and IBS Impact wishes all the involved researchers continued useful insights and progress toward those ends.

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