The research team, led by Dr Jonathan Scheiman from Harvard Medical School, have been sequencing the microbiome of elite athletes to help identify and isolate new probiotic bacteria for applications in sports performance and athletic recovery.
Over a two-year period the team have made a series of discoveries, to identify differences in the microbiome between elite athletes and non-athletes, as well as bacteria that change before, during, and after athletic events.
“In essence, we're mining the biology of the most fit and healthy people in the world and then extracting that information to help them and others,” said the lead researcher.
By analysing the microbiome of exceptional runners and rowers the Harvard team identified particular bacteria that may aid athletic performance – which the team now plan to commercialise as nutritional ingredients.
Currently the probiotic candidates are being studied in the lab to better understand their properties. However, the team have said they plan to ultimately purify the novel probiotic strains and functionally validate them.
According to Scheiman, a spin-out company called FitBiomics is planned to launch later this year.
"I would like to think that a year after we launch, we could have a novel probiotic on the market," he said. "But in parallel we'll also be expanding our cohort of elite athletes from numerous sports to generate a larger microbial data and strain bank of novel probiotic candidates.”
Prediction …. and production
"When we first started thinking about this, I was asked whether we could use genomics to predict the next Michael Jordan," said Scheiman. "But my response was that a better question is: Can you extract Jordan's biology and give it to others to help make the next Michael Jordan?"
To answer that question, the gut microbiome seemed like a good place to start, he said – noting that the bacteria in our guts are linked to so many functions.
"The bugs in our gut affect our energy metabolism, making it easier to break down carbohydrates, protein and fibre. They are also involved in inflammation and neurological function,” said the lead researcher. “So perhaps the microbiome could be relevant for applications in endurance, recovery and maybe even mental toughness."
Two years of development
As a first step toward identifying bacteria that support athletic performance, the researchers collected daily faecal samples from 20 athletes training for the 2015 Boston marathon, one week before and one week after the race.
"For two weeks I was driving around Boston collecting faecal samples and putting them on dry ice in the car," said Scheiman. "We followed athletes longitudinally to capture how the microbiome changes between performance and recovery.”
They then sequenced the genomes of the sampled bacteria, using computational metagenomic methods to figure out how many and what types of microbes inhabited the faecal samples.
By comparing between pre-race and post-race samples the team were able to identify a sudden spike in the population of one particular type of bacteria immediately after the marathon.
"This bug's natural function is to break down lactic acid," said Scheiman.
“This was pretty cool, because this metabolite is associated with, and accumulates in the body after strenuous exercise,” he said. “So basically, we identified a bug almost as a natural response to exercise that can maybe help break down and clear these metabolites from the system.”
He added that the team has since identified the same strain in ‘numerous’ other sports people, “so it seems to be universal in all athletes.”
The Harvard team has since isolated the bacteria and is beginning to evaluate its properties.
“We see it as potentially like a recovery mechanism in the body,” said Scheiman – who suggested the strain could be given back to athletes as a probiotic supplement to help prevent fatigue and promote endurance.
In another set of experiments, Scheiman and colleagues are comparing the bacteria from ultra-marathoners to those found in rowers training for the Olympics.
Through this work they have also found a type of bacteria in ultra-marathoners that can help break down carbohydrates and fibre -- which is key during a 100-mile run -- that wasn't present in the rowers, suggesting that different sports may foster niche microbiomes.
Sports nutrition spin-out
Scheiman said the next steps in commercialisation and launching FitBiomics is to complete a funding round and spin-out the company.
Currently the team are based in an incubator at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, but are looking to finish a fundraising round and spin out by the autumn.
“We’re the world’s first sports biotechnology company,” said Scheiman – adding that the company’s mission will be to commercialise the findings and technologies into real world applications.
“Certainly for our applications we’re interested in nutraceuticals and sports nutrition,” he said – noting that while the probiotic industry is already a 60 billion dollar market, almost 90% of that market focuses on two particular families of bacteria.
“We have trillions of bugs in our gut that greatly influence our health, figuratively waiting to be discovered to disrupt this industry. And that’s what we are doing,” he said.
Indeed, the team are also actively recruiting top athletes from around the world to further expand its data and strain bank.
However, the applications of the research and commercialisation of probiotic strains goes beyond elite sports, according to Scheiman.
“Certainly, there are going to be applications beyond athletics,” he said. “You don’t have to want to play in the NBA to be more fit, to be more healthy.”
Further applications of research and other stains are possible in in energy metabolism, physical endurance and recovery, immune signalling, and mental focus, he said.
“We’re very excited, not just about athletics, or even high performance athletes, but having this for everyone. Promoting health and wellness for the masses.”