Can sneaker endorsements, cereals, protein powders or electrolyte cocktails get any of us closer to the peak level performance of our favorite athletes? Despite billions in sales, the answer is probably no. But how about an elite athlete’s biology?
With 100 trillion cells in the human body, bacteria outnumber our own human cells 2 to 1, and bacteria in our gut affect all our key organ functions. The microbiome plays a role in our health, development and wellness, including endurance, recovery and mental aptitude.
What if we could tap the gut bacteria of elite athletes to produce customized probiotics—and what if those probiotics could give recipients access to some of the biological advantages that make those athletes elite?
This is a question George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard & MIT, and founding core member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, would like to answer.
Jonathan Scheiman confesses that being a research fellow in Church’s lab was not his dream job. “I wanted to play in the NBA. I played basketball at St. John’s in New York. We won a Big East championship my freshman year, an NIT championship my senior year, but I didn’t make the NBA. My backup plan was a PhD in molecular biology.”
One day he mentioned to his mentor that he’d like to sequence LeBron James’s genome, to which Church responded, “Sounds like a great idea, but why not focus on multiple athletes? Why just one?”
At the Wyss, where translation from lab to real world impact is a core principle, the next step was to brainstorm a feasible product. They soon focused on the gut microbiome. Not only can it modulate fitness by affecting energy-metabolism, neurology, resistance to infection, and cellular inflammation, but it can alter physiological states when transferred from one subject to another.
C. difficile affects around 500,000 people a year, usually when antibiotics they take for surgery wipe out their gut microbiome. Then this opportunistic pathogen colonizes the gut and causes all sorts of inflammatory aspects and ulcerative colitis. We currently can cure C. diff infection with 95 percent efficacy through fecal transplants, transferring a healthy microbiome community of organisms into someone that’s infected with this pathogen.
The Wyss team have identified unique differences in the microbiome between elite athletes and non-athletes, as well as bacteria that change before, during, and after athletic events. Preliminary research conducted on Boston Marathon runners and Olympic Trial rowers—sequencing their microbiome before, leading up to, and after competition—has revealed bacteria (bugs) that potentially increase energy metabolism and promote recovery.
Jonathan Scheiman lays out the process from start to finish: “Recruit elite athletes, sequence athlete microbiome, identify candidate probiotics, isolate novel beneficial strains and add to food.”
They are looking to sign up 100 elite athletes across the globe to develop an exclusive bank of bacterial samples and related data. They Wyss team will leverage their expertise in genome sequencing technology and microbiology to continue to identify and isolate promising bacterial species. Ultimately they will purify these novel probiotics and commercialize them as ingredients in ingestible products.
Market context: In 2015, the probiotic market was $58B while sports-based nutraceuticals—with sales of $115B—made up the largest share of the global nutraceutical market. Yet probiotic-focused sports products made up less than 1 percent of sports-based nutraceuticals.
For Scheiman, this work involves a shift of perspective. “I come from a molecular oncology background. If you look at biomedicine right now … a lot of times we’re looking for deficiencies and then finding ways to correct those to promote health.”
He acknowledges that such work is absolutely essential, but still asks, “What if we look at extremely beneficial phenotypes or extremely healthy people and fit physiology? I think professional and elite athletes are certainly one form of elite phenotypes. They can run faster. They’re stronger. They can jump higher. They’re mentally tough.”
“We’re trying to understand what makes these elite athletes unique from a molecular standpoint, then extract that information and provide it to others to benefit and promote general health and well-being, not only in athletes but maybe one day in the general population.”
When I ask George Church if there is any research that indicates that probiotics—including these extracted bacteria from elite athletes—enhance performance in non-elite athletes, he says, “No, this is brand new. That, I can fairly competently say. It’s not in the literature and peer reviewed journals. I think it will be soon.”
“It’s inevitable that the metabolism of a microorganism can influence the host,” Church asserts. “If you’re willing to make unnatural micro-organisms, you can do almost anything you can do with any other drug delivery method...
“Whether that could be done with naturally occurring organisms taken from elite athletes—which would be particularly compelling and easy to get buy-in from the community, scientific and public—that’s I think, a little more speculative. It’s likely enough that we’re pursuing it quite intensely.”
Wyss release: https://wyss.harvard.edu/technology/sports-genomics