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Go with the gut – at uBiome Inc., science meets business opportunity

‘I see everyone getting their microbiome tested, and this will lead to them getting more personalized products and services. Imagine having a customized meal kit based on your microbiome,’ says Jessica Richman, CEO and co-founder of uBiome. CEO and co- founder Jessica Richman, sits in her office at the biotech company uBiome in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. uBiome, which sequences people's microbiomes received a large amount of Venture Capital funding after getting its start through crowd funding.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Globe and Mail

In Jessica Richman's vision of the future, meals will be designed according to each individual's mix of gut bacteria, and consumers will choose their facial creams based on an analysis of the micro-organisms in their skin.

That future is just around the corner, thanks in large part to innovations at uBiome Inc., the San Francisco-based company Ms. Richman co-founded four years ago. The company uses next-generation DNA sequencing to give consumers and health-care professionals greater insights into the micro-organisms – collectively known as microbiome – in their bodies.

"A microbiome is an environment – microbiota is actually the technical term for it – populated by micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses," says Ms. Richman, CEO of uBiome. The company offers testing kits – available in consumer- and clinical-grade versions – for bacteria in the gut, mouth, nose, skin and genitals.

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"At uBiome we started with 2,500 microbiome samples and we now have 100,000, which is the largest data set in the world for human microbiome. What that means is we can find insights on the microbiome that no one else can."

The firm's technology is among a wave of innovations expected to transform the way people take care of themselves by providing DNA-based analyses of their bodies' systems. The emergence of these futuristic technologies, Ms. Richman says, sets the stage for truly personalized health care.

Big data and citizen science are used to inform uBiome analyses. How does the citizen science part of this work?

The idea with citizen science is that you don't have to have a PhD or work in a research institution to do science. A good example of citizen science at work is in the field of ornithology, where they use amateur birdwatchers to help gather data on birds.

At UBiome, we basically have people doing experiments on themselves and then use the data they've gathered to help answer their questions. The experiments range from quite serious to quite silly. On the serious side, there are those people who want to test their hypothesis on what might improve their gut biome – like, if they take probiotics or do elimination diet, will that lower the gut inflammation? Then there are the fun experiments, like people sampling the bacteria on their kitchen counter or sampling their babies just to see how their microbiome changes as they grow.

And what kind of insights would they gain from these experiments?

For people who do the five-site test – where they sample the nose, mouth, skin, gut and genitals – they might learn that their microbiome is similar to a particular group of people with particular hygiene habits or oral concerns.

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What's the point of this type of information?

First of all, we don't provide disease diagnosis. So we can't, for example, say you are prone to gum disease, but we can give people statistics about their microbiome that they can take to their dentist to discuss possible interventions. We do provide more in-depth analyses for our medical-grade product, such as identifying if a patient microbiome falls within a healthy range, and what specific conditions and infections are associated with certain pathogens and microbes.

What are other applications for microbiome testing?

There are a lot of business opportunities for collaboration to take this big data set and use them to build products. We're currently working with a Fortune 500 cosmetics company that has asked us to help them develop a diagnostic for skin cream. So our test would look at specific bacteria in skin and then, based on the results, the consumer would know they belong to a specific type of skin biome, and that this specific skin cream is the best for their skin biome. We're doing similar things with food companies, such as yogurt companies. It's really cool because it gives us this extra reach into other industries.

Looking far into the future, where do you see microbiome testing in the health-care ecosystem?

I see the integration of microbiome testing into our lives. I see everyone getting their microbiome tested, and this will lead to them getting more personalized products and services. Imagine having a customized meal kit based on your microbiome.

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If your results show that your microbiome isn't very diverse, the kit would be customized to include foods like broccoli, which promotes beneficial bacteria. So the food you eat will actually be scientifically chosen and optimized for your health. I also think the medical side will have serious applications that can really help people who are suffering from things like chronic gut condition. Some of these people suffer for years – microbiome testing can help their doctors diagnose and treat the conditions based on DNA data.

This is the last of three profiles of speakers appearing at The Globe and Mail's inaugural Executive Performance Summit, which takes place in Toronto on Nov. 16. Visit globesummits.ca for details.

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