Technology and collaboration aid bowel disease studies

First published 11 September 2020

Present treatments are unable to provide long-term remission for people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), allowing development of related diseases such as colorectal cancer and impacting quality of life. IHBI research uses genomics to improve IBD understanding and provide new treatment options.

Professor Gene Tyson is taking a multi-faceted approach to IBD research, with the aim of better understanding gut health, viruses and immunity—and ultimately developing a new class of medicines.

The work involves biology, genomics, microscopy, robotics, high-performance computing—and collaboration with industry and clinicians to ensure research findings align with manufacturing, regulatory processes and healthcare practices.

Professor Tyson has been appointed QUT Professor of Microbial Genomics and Director of the new Centre for Microbiome Research. He works with a multidisciplinary team in IHBI laboratories at the Translational Research Institute, adjoining the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.

Professor Tyson says a healthy gut microbiome is vital not only in preventing IBD, but in supporting the body’s immune response. ‘The public awareness of the importance of the microbiome is increasing, and our aim is to understand the role that different microorganisms play in health and disease states,’ he says.

A particular focus of his team’s research is the spatial organisation of microorganisms in the mucosal epithelium, the outer layer of the gut lining that acts as a physical barrier.

‘Bacteria that can penetrate and reside in this mucosal layer are uniquely positioned to influence host immune and metabolic functions,’ Professor Tyson says. ‘Disturbance in the mucosal barrier is a common characteristic of IBD.’

IBD research typically focuses on bacteria, but Professor Tyson is interested in overlooked components of intestinal microbial communities including drivers of disease such as fungi, viruses and DNA molecules called plasmids.

‘Little of the prior research has captured the structural organisation of the intestinal microbiome, which provides important information on host-microbe interactions,’ he says.

Microbial genomics is at the core of Professor Tyson’s research, involving the study of microorganisms with their genetic material and providing insight in the diversity of microbes in a particular environment.

‘The work is significant because it will help to bridge the gap between our understanding of the gut microbiome in IBD and the ability to transform the knowledge into clinical practice.

‘Our team is uniquely placed for translating the knowledge. We have active engagements with qualified pharmaceutical companies who recognise that gut microbiome derived therapeutics are a revolutionary new class of medicine with highly desirable characteristics.’

In 2017, Professor Tyson co-founded Brisbane biotech company Microba with Professor Philip Hugenholtz to analyse the gut microbiome and develop new pathology services, therapeutics and diagnostics.

Researchers in Professor Tyson’s team aim to develop a new class of medicines called live biotherapeutics, containing live microorganisms such as bacteria or yeast and often sharing common origins with probiotics.

Use of live biotherapeutic products in clinical application has shown great promise for reducing infection, stimulating innate immune responses and regulating metabolism in the gastrointestinal tract.

Australia has one of the highest global incidence rates of IBD, with more than 75 000 people affected. Hospital costs are estimated at $100 million per year, with an additional cost of $380 million due to productivity losses and IBD management.

Decreased quality of life is also a major consequence for people with IBD, including the disruption to routine activities and impact on education, work productivity and social functioning.