Dr. Sergio Baranzini from the University of California at San Francisco receives this year’s Stephen C. Reingold Award for the Society’s most outstanding research proposal. His proposal earned his team a Society Collaborative MS Center Award to investigate the microbiome – the community of bacteria that live in the body and support healthy function – for its potential impact on MS.
Dr. Baranzini, you’ve played a key role identifying the 159 genetic variants linked to MS through your work with the International MS Genetics Consortium. What prompted this shift in focus to the micro biome?
It is widely accepted that susceptibility to MS is part genetic, and part environmental, so I actually see investigation into the gut microbiome as the perfect complement to our gene mapping studies. The microbiome is a good proxy for the environment because it is modified by diet and other environmental variables, which themselves are difficult to measure.
How was the microbiome consortium formed and what are you trying to accomplish?
The Society’s Collaborative MS Center award has enabled a group of talented individuals from a wide range of disciplines to come together to tackle this work. Although we come from somewhat different backgrounds, we agree that this is the right time to rigorously examine the role of commensal gut bacteria in the susceptibility and progression of MS because recent technological advances have allowed us to measure the microbiome very precisely and in a reproducible manner.
How far along would you say we are in microbiome research in MS?
Given how new this area of research is, it is fair to say that there is an enormous amount of work ahead of us. However, we can capitalize on existing technologies like DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to help us move quickly. There’s so much that we don’t know and the microbiome consortium is working to answer some fundamental questions about the role that gut bacteria may play in MS. Gathering more information on this relationship and confirming those results will be necessary before possible interventions to alter one’s microbiome in the form of diets, supplements, probiotics, or a combination can be considered.
What is your vision for how this knowledge will be used to inform MS care and/or prevention?
My vision is that one day we will be able to combine genetic and microbiome data for a given patient that doctors will use to prescribe a specific diet, probiotic/antibiotic, or any combination of the above, with or without traditional disease modifying therapies, to more effectively reduce the incidence, severity and progression of MS.