A race to turn trillions of our own bacteria into medical breakthroughs

The microbiome is rapidly becoming a game-changer in the health-care industry. If you don't believe it, look at the facts. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the White House are providing funding, research leaders are studying and publishing papers almost weekly, and venture capitalists are looking to invest. In fact, Science called the microbiome one of its breakthroughs of the year. So what is it about the microbiome that has people so interested?

Escherichia coli bacteria in a colored electron-scanning micrograph
PASIEKA | Getty Images
Escherichia coli bacteria in a colored electron-scanning micrograph

First of all, it's important to understand what exactly the microbiome is. In very simple terms, the microbiome is the DNA record of the trillions of bacteria that live in our digestive system, on our skin, and throughout our body. Among many significant benefits, these bacteria help to regulate our immune system and aid in digestion.

Everyone from the government to independent foundations are funding microbiome research. Recently, the White House officially recognized the microbiome's importance with their announcement of the National Microbiome Initiative, a $221 million investment initiative which includes a $100 million investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Researchers are focusing on the microbiome because of the huge potential to define and influence the DNA record of the bacteria. By exploiting this information, researchers will be able to diagnosis and prevent or treat a variety of health conditions and diseases, such as infectious disease, obesity, cancer and digestive disease.

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Significant venture capital resources are also moving into this sector as the science and understanding of the microbiome is heating up. From 2011 to 2015, funding in microbiome start-ups grew 458.5 percent, to $114.6 million, and already in 2016 microbiome-based companies have raised $616.9 million. This investment growth is partially due to the emergence of microbiome-specific venture capital firms, which have been closing funds at increasing sizes. For example, in 2015 Seventure Partners raised $176 million for its Health for Life fund, exclusively focusing on the microbiome.

Just a few years ago a handful of companies were dedicated to harnessing the microbiome to treat disease. Now with increased funding opportunities, more than a dozen companies, such as Vedanta Biosciences, Seres Therapeutics, Rebiotix, Enterome, Metabiomics, Ritter Pharmaceuticals and many others, are sprouting daily.

My company, Ritter Pharmaceuticals, is developing the first FDA-approved treatment for lactose intolerance by adapting the bacteria in the gut to better digest lactose (the sugar found in dairy foods).

Major pharmaceutical companies are entering the space. Johnson & Johnson, Abbott, Pfizer, Novartis, Roche and Nestlé Health Sciences have all established microbiome divisions. J&J's Janssen Human Microbiome Institute has gone one step further by establishing microbiome-based research-and-development collaborations with firms such as Vedanta for a novel inflammatory bowel disease treatment, committing up to $241 million to the arrangement.

As expressed by Todd Klaenhammer, professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at North Carolina State University and member of the National Academy of Sciences, "from treating/preventing digestive diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance, to treating cancer, infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders, the microbiome will be used to discover the next frontier in improving health care and understanding the microbes that live among us."

Where the research goes next is upon us and appears limitless.

By Andrew J. Ritter, founder and president of Ritter Pharmaceuticals and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

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