For $99, genetic testing startup 23andMe will analyze your DNA, telling you how to live smarter and longer—and what disease might kill you. But there's another inner frontier to explore in personalized medicine: the bacteria in your gut.
For $89, Ubiome, a startup founded by Jessica Richman—a doctoral candidate at Oxford who did stints at Google and McKinsey after graduating from Stanford in 2009—will send you a kit that harvests the organisms that live inside your body. For additional fees, you can also gather bacteria from your mouth, nose, skin, and genitalia.
Ubiome will analyze the microbes, which play a part in digestion, keep our bodies in balance, and may influence our susceptibility to health problems like anxiety, acne, heart disease, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease, among others.
Though Ubiome can’t diagnose conditions or treat what ails you, "what we can say is here’s how you correlate" with other people, says Richman. From there, Ubiome participants can have a better understanding of their susceptibility to disorders linked to the microbiome.
Ubiome, which Richman cofounded with biophysicist Zachary Apte and William Ludington, a molecular biologist, aims to build a database of the genetic makeup of organisms that call our bodies home.
On an individual level, the ability to know one’s microbiome appeals to people who choose to collect and analyze data about themselves and to learn how they compare with others, says Richman, whose ultimate hope is the the data she collects may point to possible treatments for poorly understood diseases like autism or chronic fatigue syndrome.
It could also help groups better understand how dietary or other changes affect their bodies. Someone thinking about eliminating gluten from his diet, for example, can sample his microbiome now and then again in six weeks, and invite others to do the same. A transgender woman might recruit 100 other former men to compare their vaginal microbiomes with those of non-transgender females.
To date, about 3,000 people worldwide have signed up. Roughly a third of them have sent back samples, which Ubiome is analyzing in its lab at the University of California’s Institute for Quantitative Biosciences.
The more people who submit samples, the more Ubiome can infer about the propensity of people with similar microbiomes to contract comparable conditions. Ubiome’s founders, who raised $351,000 last winter, roughly tripled their goal, via Indiegogo, "to bring the microbiome to the general public in a way that hasn’t happened," says Richman, who notes that Ubiome may be the first biotech company to be completely crowdfunded.
Richman credits the Human Microbiome Project, an ongoing study by the National Institutes of Health, with showing the possibilities of microbial analysis. The NIH project, which began in 2007, discovered that we each host about 1,000 types of microbial cells out of a pool of 10,000 such cells globally. "The take-home is that there’s a naturally occurring population of microbes that live on the body that are part of you that you need to have in order to be healthy," says Lita Proctor, the project’s director.
Proctor and her colleagues also aim to associate microbes with specific diseases and conditions. An NIH-funded study under way at New York University is exploring connections among microbes and esophageal cancer. The National Institute of Mental Health is also looking into possible links between the bacteria in our bellies and behavior.
Proctor says she's supportive of efforts by Ubiome and other startups like the American Gut Project, a crowdfunded venture that is sequencing the microbiomes of people and their pets. "The more different people you sample from, the better picture you get of a healthy microbiome," she says.
That’s not to say the practice of asking the public to carry out tasks normally performed by researchers—a phenomenon known as citizen science—doesn't have its critics.
Bioscience startups tend to attract investors who have the financial means and the patience for investments that can face a series of regulatory roadblocks, according to Marcus Chandler, an attorney in Indianapolis who advises biotech entrepreneurs.
"When you go to crowd funding it’s almost like you’ve flipped to the opposite pole and said, well, anyone who’s interested in a cure for Alzheimer’s will have an opportunity to put in $1,000 and support this cause," Chandler says.
Ubiome also has sparked debate among academics about how to ensure the public consents knowingly to participation in the company’s research. The founders should have engaged a committee of experts without ties to Ubiome to review its practices before taking to Indiegogo, critics charge. Such panels, known as institutional review boards, examine research that involves human subjects to ensure researchers treat the subjects humanely and that the subjects participate voluntarily.
By law, researchers who ask for federal funding or conduct clinical trials must obtain sign-off from a so-called IRB before proceeding. "We weren’t doing either of these things," says Apte. "We were doing citizen science where people are accessing their own data about themselves."
Though Ubiome obtained IRB approval after the company secured funds, the timing rankled some researchers, who contend Ubiome should have obtained IRB review before soliciting funds. "I think Ubiome would have benefitted greatly from thoughtful ethical advice when the project was still being conceived," says Janet Stemwedel, an associate professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who has faulted Ubiome’s approach.
Ubiome’s founders welcome the debate, but they say critics misconstrue their decision to obtain IRB review after lining up funding as an ethical issue. "It’s a very fine bureaucratic issue, what order to file paperwork in—which I agree is an important issue to get right—but when there aren’t rules, it’s easy to criticize," says Apte.
Apte and Richman say scientists need to think anew about how to ensure people know what they’re consenting to in an era of crowdfunding. "New institutions need to come into existence to make sure you act ethically," says Richman, who predicts that the process of waiting years for research to wind its way through the government or academic institutions will accelerate.
Lots of people and bigger sample sizes "will help us solve problems faster and better," she adds.
Citizen science also promises to change a model of scientific inquiry that Richman calls outmoded. "Science is this very craftsman-like cottage industry made by hand where the master teaches the journeyman how to do research," she says. "There’s a place for that, but why not take advantage of the fact that a billion people are on Facebook or have phones that will allow them to connect to the Internet, and use that to solve the world’s biggest problems?"