Researchers Explore Microbes to Benefit Animal, Human Health

By current estimates, the human body contains 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. Acting in ways both beneficial and harmful, this complex ecosystem of microorganisms–collectively called the microbiome–lives on the surface of the skin and in the gut and urogenital tract where it influences digestion, allergies, and a multitude of diseases. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), researchers are exploring the microbiome of animals in order to benefit both animal and human health.

Penn Vet’s new Center for Host Microbial Interactions is designed to facilitate collaborative projects that leverage genomics to study the intersection of microbes and disease. In doing so, researchers will gain insight into how bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other organisms interact with their animal and human hosts in ways that either maintain health or lead to disease. The center is currently funding five pilot projects. Each year, the Center will invite researchers to submit proposals for funding. In addition to these pilots, the Center provides ongoing support and training for Penn Vet faculty and their labs to carry out analyses of the complex datasets generated by genomic approaches.

“We strongly believe this innovative approach to health and disease will provide new insights into animal and human health and will build on the One Health concept, linking veterinary medicine, human medicine, and environmental science, in a novel and impactful way,” said Joan C. Hendricks, VMD, PhD, the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The five pilot projects, including one specific to horses, are each led by Penn Vet faculty. Projects will investigate canine atopic dermatitis as a model for human dermatology; digestion, productivity, and health in dairy cows; maternal stress and its impact on neurological health of offspring; stem cell transformation and colorectal cancer; and preoperative antibiotics and the equine gut microbiome.

About the Study

Previous research has linked high-carbohydrate feed to the development of colitis in horses. This could have to do with how a change in diet leads to alterations in the population of microbes living in the gastrointestinal tract, ultimately tipping the balance from health to disease. Likewise, administering pre-operative antibiotics could also lead to gut microbiome imbalances. In her pilot project, Julie Engiles, VMD, Dipl. ACVP will take fecal and serum samples from subjects at New Bolton Center and track variations in the horses’ gut microbiome at certain times after surgery.

If a horse develops an infection after its procedure, Engiles and colleagues will evaluate whether the infectious agents match up to those in the gut or whether they match other microbes. The study will also track horses to see if they develop other post-operative complications, including two of the most troublesome maladies that strike horses: colic and laminitis.

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