What if you could prevent hangovers by taking a pill? Or if you could take medicines that only targeted diseased tissues?
Those are some of the promises that probiotics offer. Engineered probiotics offer even greater possibilities.
What are probiotics?
Before defining probiotics, it’s important to understand the human microbiome.
Your microbiome is a wonder of nature. You (and every other human) share your body with trillions of microbes. About a thousand species of bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses live in your mouth, in your gut, and on your skin. It’s estimated that the average human body is inhabited by as many non-human cells as human cells.
These microbes are essential for maintaining human health.
For example, the trillions of microbes that live in your gut are involved in virtually all aspects of human health. They synthesize vitamins and neurochemicals and harvest energy from our diets. They help with digestion and strengthen the immune system. Some are even involved in how the brain develops. An unhealthy microbiome has been implicated in allergies, arthritis, asthma, autism, colon cancer, several infections, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and many other diseases.
Probiotics are designed to improve your microbiome
With our growing knowledge of the microbiome, an increasing number of companies are seeking to use microbes to benefit human health. You’ve probably heard of probiotics, and chances are you’ve even eaten some (yogurt anyone?). Bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been used in yogurts, pills, and probiotic powders for decades.
But the one-size-fits-all probiotic supplements on your grocery store shelves usually fall short of delivering on their promises, and fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut seem to be good for gut health generally although we still aren’t 100% sure why they work. What if we could design microbes to target specific tissues and cells rather than your whole body, avoiding preventable side effects, bringing probiotics to a whole new level?
Synthetic biology is engineering better probiotics
This is exactly what several companies are doing by leveraging synthetic biology.
Synthetic biology aims to make biology easier to engineer. Not only does synthetic biology leverage the traditional “wetware” tools of the laboratory, it increasingly uses artificial intelligence and machine learning. In fact, many of the discoveries being worked on today that will be the products of tomorrow wouldn’t be possible without that combination of living and computational tools.
Since the microbiome is involved in so many health processes, it’s no surprise that synthetic biologists are creating “living medicines” to tackle significant health problems through the microbiome. Many companies are starting in the gut — home to the most diverse ecosystem of microbes found in the human body.
Zbiotics is the company that successfully developed the world’s first genetically engineered probiotic. Their bioengineered probiotic bacteria has been designed to increase the production of the chemical factories (enzymes) in your body that break down a toxic chemical byproduct of alcohol in your gut. In other words, they’ve invented a hangover cure — but you have to ingest it before or during drinking.
But hangovers aren’t exactly a disease. Synlogic is targeting phenylketonuruia, a rare genetic disorder that prevents patients from breaking down an amino acid called phenylalanine. They’re also developing cancer therapeutics that work without persisting or accumulating in the body. Synlogic believes that living medicines could be used as anti-cancer agents, activating your own body against cancer cells, and potentially improving the effectiveness of other immunomodulatory treatments. Personally, I love Synlogic’s strategy of going after an orphan drug designation for phenylketonuria because it’ll prove that living medicines can work.
Another great example is Belgium-based ActoBio. ActoBio has developed a probiotic delivery platform using the same bacteria that make cheese and other delicious foods. In this case, these bacteria have been engineered to produce a treatment for diabetes and deliver it directly to the body’s sites in need. Using this synthetic biology, ActoBio is able to target tissues more precisely, challenging conventional diabetes treatment such as pills or injections.
It’s not all about the gut
The gut was a natural place to start with engineered probiotics, given that for decades probiotics have been used to support gut health. But as I mentioned before, your entire body is full of microbes, and several companies are targeting diseases that affect other areas of your body, like your skin or your mouth.
For example, Oralta is a probiotic company founded by dentists seeking to to help patients get rid of bad breath. The strains of bacteria that comprise Oralta’s flagship product were selected to restore the natural balance of bacteria in your mouth, keeping the ones that cause bad breath in check. Oralta’s probiotics are not genetically modified, but it’s not hard to imagine the possibilities of engineering microbes to treat specific oral maladies — even at an individual level.
Your skin also harbors a vast microbiome. What you place on your skin – whether a decorative cosmetic, moisturizer, or medicine — certainly influences your skin microbes.
Azitra is a pre-clinical stage microbiome company developing probiotics to treat skin diseases like eczema. Azitra engineers the bacteria already on your skin that naturally fight inflammation-causing bacteria to make them even better warriors against skin disease.
Like the study of the microbiome, the field of engineered probiotics is relatively new and regulations around it are still evolving. Companies may be reluctant to fully invest in new probiotics until regulations are in place that both protect consumers and encourage innovation.
This above list is by no means comprehensive. The future of engineered probiotics is exciting and I believe their impact on human health will be widespread.
Disclaimer: I am the founder of SynBioBeta, the innovation network for the synthetic biology industry. Some of the companies that I write about are partners of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors). In addition, I am an advisor to Zbiotics.