“"It's important that we study microbiome development early in life, when the potential to make an impact is the greatest,"” says Katrine Whiteson, an assistant professor of molecular biology & biochemistry. Steve Zylius / UCI

Making sense of microbiomes

UCI biochemist studies the effect of unique virus, bacteria and fungi on kids' health

On May 13, top U.S. scientists met at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., where the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy announced the National Microbiome Initiative – a bold plan to advance research on microbiomes in order to foster the development of useful applications in healthcare, food production and environmental restoration.

And among the invitees was Katrine Whiteson, an assistant professor of molecular biology & biochemistry at the University of California, Irvine whose work at the intersection of microbiomes and human health may one day improve childhood well-being.

For the uninitiated, microbiomes are the vast communities of microorganisms – such as viruses, bacteria and fungi – that live on or in people, animals, plants, soil, oceans and the atmosphere. They help maintain the health of these diverse ecosystems. Or they can damage them.

Understanding microbiomes holds great promise – hence the White House initiative. In-depth studies of entire microbe colonies – even those hard to grow in the lab – took off in the last 10 years, largely because DNA sequencing became much less expensive. And Whiteson is one of the leaders in this emerging area.

Our bodies teem with trillions of microorganisms – each individual’s microbiome is unique – that aid digestion and other functions. But they also are implicated in allergies, cystic fibrosis, Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease and other disorders.

“I am optimistic that the research we are doing as a field could lead to important changes in our future health as a population,” says Whiteson, who also has a joint appointment in pediatrics. “It’s important that we study microbiome development early in life, when the potential to make an impact is the greatest.”

With support from UCI’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science and the UC Biomedical Research Acceleration, Integration & Development program, she’s doing just that. Whiteson led the formation of the UC Center for Pediatric Microbiome Research with experienced scientists and physicians from other UC campuses. The joint effort aims to shed light on microbial development in childhood and leverage this knowledge to promote pediatric health.

“What UC BRAID thought about Katrine’s proposal for the center is that it’s innovative, it’s important, and it brings together physicians and basic scientists,” says Dr. Dan Cooper, a UCI pediatrician, director of ICTS and UC BRAID executive committee member. “We know that the microbiome changes over the span of a lifetime and that these changes contribute in different ways to health and disease. This is a whole new area through which to understand complex diseases we haven’t been able to in the past.”

Since its inception in 2010, UC BRAID has been a resource for identifying clinical and translational research needs and enabling partnerships across the five UC Health campuses. Its aim is to establish the UC system as the premier national network for innovative translational research. One of its initiatives is to support the top UC projects in pediatric clinical research.

“Our collaborations are still in the very early stages,” Whiteson says of the UC Center for Pediatric Microbiome Research. “But the expertise among the nearly two dozen UC research groups and the diverse and large population in California will allow us to conduct translational research that can help us define what a healthy microbiome is and how children can have one.”

Among her own research projects, she has teamed up with UCI chemists Donald Blake and Simone Meinardi to develop safe breath analysis methods for monitoring cystic fibrosis lung infections over time. The Blake lab excels at gas content evaluation, and Whiteson says their long-term goal is to find molecules in breath samples specific to an individual patient or disease state that could be used as biomarkers to track infections and direct antibiotic treatments.

It’s the promise of this type of work and large collaborations such as those with the UC Center for Pediatric Microbiome Research that spurred the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy to raise awareness of and encourage momentum toward the considerable benefits of understanding microbiomes.

“I’m very glad that the White House is investing energy in this research effort that could have important consequences for everyone’s health,” Whiteson says. “I also loved getting to tell my kids that I was invited to a White House event. It was exciting to attend.”

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