Professor Sven Pettersson, Director of the ASEAN Microbiome Nutrition Centre, shares why gut microbes are crucial for our well-being.

"The microbes in your body are part of you, they are us. Without them, you and I would not be sitting here,” said Professor Sven Pettersson, Principal Investigator, Department of Research, National Neuroscience Institute (NNI).

The microbes that Prof Pettersson (above) refers to are the indigenous bacteria that reside in our bodies. Studies have shown that gut microbes are essential as they regulate and communicate with the body’s organs. They are connected to almost all organs and functions, including metabolism, immunity, locomotion and behaviour. That is, they need a host (you) and we need them to keep our body functions in balance. The word gut microbiome refers to all the microorganisms and all the molecules they secrete.

To better understand how gut microbehost interactions regulate human health and ageing, Prof Pettersson and his team at NNI partnered with Malaysia’s Sunway University to establish the ASEAN Microbiome Nutrition Centre (AMNC) in June 2022. The centre, which Prof Pettersson heads as its director, is funded by the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation and supported by the UK Dementia Research Institute.

The AMNC research vision is to identify how gut microbes communicate with our organs in the body with a strong focus on the gut-brain axis. As such, the team seeks to identify novel gut-microbe-linked biomarkers associated with the risk of accelerated ageing and/or contracting neurodegenerative diseases. The Centre will work closely with the local food industry to develop proof-ofconcept solutions involving food products that guide gut microbes to slow the ageing process and support human health. To accomplish these objectives, the AMNC has been integrated into SingHealth medical cluster to optimise the communication between healthcare providers and the experimental scientific team.

The power of gut microbes

The last decades of research have demonstrated the importance of gut microbes in regulating the function or our organs in the body. Citing an example, Prof Pettersson said: “Microbes communicate with our own communication systems, including the bloodstream, bile acid, lymphatic system and the nervous system. Since 30 per cent of the products in the bloodstream are of microbial origin, there is an enormous ability of microbial metabolites to reach distant organs outside the intestine and thus influence their daily functions.

The secreted metabolites produced by microbes act as communicators to transmit information from the bacteria to the organ of interest. The organ, in turn, releases a response that is received by the gut microbes and this response can be supporting health or be associated to a disease. Prof Pettersson and his team are convinced that understanding gut microbe communication mechanisms that support human health is essential if we are to identify individuals at risk of contracting disease, including neurodegenerative diseases and dementia.

“The AMNC is a think tank to generate research and translate the results into the healthcare community through pilot clinical trials to evaluate how gut microbes can be used as a target intervention,” said Prof Pettersson. “Unlike our genes, gut microbes are malleable and respond quickly to our diet, so a specially designed diet can be used to guide the microbes to benefit a person’s health.”

The pillars of the ASEAN Microbiome Nutrition Centre (AMNC)

To understand how gut microbes impact organ function during health and disease by:

  • Using systems biology and omicprofiling to identify novel biomarkers that identify individuals with accelerated ageing and risk of contracting disease
  • Undertaking mechanistic studies, using animal models and identifying signalling pathways that regulate brain function, including disease studies linked to Parkinson’s disease and dementia
  • Translating the results from AMNC to local food industrial partners that introduce food products guiding gut microbes to slow down biological ageing

Biological Ageing vs Chronological Ageing

While chronological age is time-based, biological age measures the speed of organ decline in the body. This means that a person who is 50 years old may have organ functions that are younger or older than 50, depending on their lifestyle and gut microbes.

AMNC performs research from the hypothesis that gut microbes regulate biological ageing through secretion of microbial metabolites, and that biological age is a more accurate reflection of how well our organs are functioning as we age.

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