CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Greg Medlock's work studying the trillions of tiny organisms that live in every human body stemmed from three of his personal interests: biology, math and weightlifting.
Now a researcher at the University of Virginia, Medlock is focused on the microorganisms that grow in people's guts, and he's using complex math to try to figure out the best mix to make people healthy.
If he's successful, his work could prompt a new industry of "microbe microbreweries," where health-focused companies can engineer and produce probiotics supplements specifically targeted to various health problems.
As an undergraduate studying bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, he became interested in the science behind building muscle and decided to research muscle protein biophysics. He applied the concepts of physics to study the flexibility of the proteins that make up muscle.
"I fell in love with the science of the process," said Medlock, who, at 27, recently earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from UVA.
His love of science and the body evolved to include a deeper interest in nutrition and the role that the microbiome — a term that refers to the thousands of microorganism species that live in the human gut — plays in health.
Gut health has gained attention in recent years, prompting some health-conscious people to take probiotics supplements, drink apple cider vinegar and eat yogurt. A report released last month by Acumen Research and Consulting predicted that the global probiotics market could reach $78 billion by 2026.
The microorganisms, known as "bugs," include bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses. In a healthy person, the bugs in the intestines work together, feeding off each other's waste and maintaining a balanced ecosystem within the body. But the gut can become imbalanced due to environmental exposures and diet, making the body more susceptible to disease, according to the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University.
Studies conducted by scientists at UVA have linked gut health to autism, cancer and depression in mice.
A study published this month in the medical journal Cancer Research, supervised by Melanie Rutkowski of UVA's Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology found that an inflamed gut caused by an imbalanced microbiome caused breast cancer to spread more aggressively in mice. Other studies published in various medical journals have found connections with rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and the immune system, according to a publication by Harvard Medical School.
Earlier this year, Medlock was awarded a competitive $100,000 grant that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation earmarked for promising solutions to preventing, treating and curing diseases in the developing world for his research project.
The idea is that Medlock's research could help pinpoint how best to manufacture probiotics focused on battling malnutrition in children that could be distributed efficiently in the developing world.
While earning his Ph.D., Medlock focused on using mathematical approaches to understanding and predicting the interactions among the gut bugs. The grant seemed like the perfect opportunity to further his research and translate it into a practical application — making it easier and more efficient to produce probiotics targeted to improve health.
"There's so much promise as far as microbiome disease associations," Medlock said.
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com