For many who grew up in an age filled with germ-killing soaps and chemical disinfectants, “bacteria” is a dirty word. However new research suggests that promoting the growth of certain strains of bacteria in the body could be beneficial in the treatment of some pretty nasty diseases. Pharmaceutical companies are working on developing pills hosting both naturally occurring and genetically modified species to care for patients suffering from gastrointestinal disease, mental illness, diabetes, and obesity.
The human body is a veritable rainforest of bacteria. The gut alone is home to between ten and 1,000 trillion bacterial cells that fall into five different phyla. They aid in everything from digestion of fiber and synthesis of vitamins to nutrient absorption. New species are still being discovered, and some experts believe that illnesses ranging from depression to colitis could be caused by an imbalance in the body’s microbiome.
Several pharmaceutical startup companies are in the process of identifying beneficial bacteria and adding them to pills that can be administered much like their chemical-filled counterparts. Fecal transplants to treat patients that suffer from the overgrowth of Clostridium difficile, a harmful bacteria that can cause inflammation and diarrhea, have already shown promise. Pills could be a far simpler and less complicated way of getting the right bugs in the right places.
Seres Health, a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based Flagship Ventures, recently went public with its development of a bacterial pill that mixes strains to treat Clostridium difficile. Their computer algorithms scan the makeup of healthy bacterial populations and attempt to weed out the culprits responsible for an illness. California company Osel is also conducting trials on bacterial pills to cure the disease, but are using a single strain of genetically-modified organisms instead. According to the Supreme Court, the United States does not allow naturally-occurring species to be patented, but those that are scientifically altered could be a huge source of revenue.
Even though it is still not completely clear whether or not an imbalance of bacteria causes ailments like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, patients may soon have the option of taking a pill filled with living creatures to ease their suffering.