The microbiota, which is comprised of the microorganisms that live in and on humans, has recently become a popular topic with both scientists and the general public, alike. While microbes in general are often seen as the “bad guys” – and the recent Ebola outbreak does not help this interpretation – there is an essential partnership between humans and microbes that showcases the beneficial relationship in metabolic health, immunity, gut function, colorectal cancer, and even behavior.

This host-microbiota connection serves as the driving force for a multi-institutional team of researchers led by Robert Alaniz, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. Their work, which recently received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), focuses on understanding how the microbiota regulate T-cells, which are meant to help protect your body. But for people with autoimmune diseases, like colitis, immune responses can attack their own cell – which is where Alaniz and his team come in. Their research will educate the T-cells to only provide protection from inflammation, and in turn, prevent disease.

“We hope that these studies will lead to the development of a model to create a personalized approach that is tailored for each individual patient rather than trying to make the patient fit the treatment,” Alaniz said. “We are essentially looking at ways to create personalized cellular immunotherapy to re-educate our own T-cells so that they regulate autoimmune diseases.”

By leveraging the unique collaborations of scientists on this project, the team is able to model optimal growth and conditioning of T-cells, which expedites discovery of how the cell will respond once infused in a person. These findings will serve to enhance the microbiota’s role as an active participant in supporting overall health.

Other members of the research team include Dr. Arul Jayaraman, professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University and Dr. Juergen Hahn of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

— Katherine Hancock