Pitt and UPMC Create Microbiome Research Center

By Alexa Bakalarski / News Editor

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UPMC and Pitt’s Schools of Health Sciences, along with the White House, announced a joint venture on Friday to try to understand the microbiome – the trillions of microbes that form an ecosystem within a human body.

Pitt and UPMC formally established Pitt’s Center for Medicine and the Microbiome as part of the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to a release  from UPMC. In the center, scientists and clinicians will study how the microbiome affects health and disease, as well as how it can be used to develop therapies for patients.

The National Microbiome Initiative’s goal is to better understand microbiome behavior, as well as to protect and restore healthy microbiome function. The initiative includes investigating the fundamental principles of microbiomes across different ecosystems and the developing new tools to study microbiomes. UPMC spokesperson Allison Hydzik said that the initiative is “a thought partnership” that coordinates sharing of microbiome research across institutions.

According to a release from the White House, more than 100 institutions outside of the federal government announced new support for microbiome research with the launch of the initiative.  

Pitt’s Department of Medicine, UPMC and UPMC Enterprises are providing more than $5 million dollars in funding for the Center. Microbial genomics company uBiome, Inc., and the Pitt School of Dental Medicine contributed to the Center as well.

Allison Morris, a professor in Pitt’s Department of Medicine, will lead the new research center with its projects on microbiomes and how they function.

“Our bodies are not ours alone,” Morris said in the release from UPMC.  “A great variety of microscopic organisms call us home and, in turn, they perform critical functions for us, including digesting our food, modulating inflammation and fighting off bad bugs.”

The center aims to launch the Pittsburgh Biome Project in the near future to crowd-source a collection of gut microbiome samples from any member of the local community. Participants could receive an analysis of their microbiome sample. The research project would analyze the microbiome samples in relation to current and future health. The clinical samples, in a large biorepository, will be linked to electronic health records with participant consent. The project will be the first of its kind that engages local community with large-scale microbiome research related to current health and future disease risk.

“We expect our Center for Medicine and the Microbiome to usher in a new era of care, with what we learn leading to therapies for diseases and conditions ranging from obesity to cancer,” Morris said in the UPMC release.

Additionally, the center plans to conduct research in key areas such as the treatment and development of drug-resistant pathogens and the use of fecal transplantation for diseases. The center will give Pitt scientists collaboration opportunities that will give them access to microbial analyses that were previously inaccessible to them.

Arthur Levine, the Dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine and Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences, said in a release that the biorepository and database will be “an incredible asset” in Pittsburgh that enables studies on the microbiome’s impact on health conditions such as hypertension, malnutrition and lung conditions.
“We may discover that the balance of microbes in the gut can be adjusted to fight obesity, or that our microbiome could help or hinder certain cancers or the response of cancer to therapy,” Levine said in a release. “Our discoveries could lead to clinical trials that result in therapies to help people around the world.”

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