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Using our own bacteria for product development and optimization in health and disease

“The human body is full of bacteria. They are in our intestine, in our mouth, on our skin. And they are constantly interacting with us.” Sabina Lukovac is project leader at NIZO Food Research, and together with her colleagues in collaboration with universities, the food-industry and pharmaceutical companies, she is studying bacteria and their interaction with the host, the human body. She has been at TMC for more than two years and at NIZO for almost a year.

Most of the projects that Sabina is working on at NIZO are related to the human-bacteria interaction in our bodies. “First we map these bacteria and preferably cultivate them in the lab in order to mimic as much as possible the growth, composition, and function as they are in the natural environment of these bacteria. After we have done that -which is no small task- we can try and see if there is a way to manipulate these bacteria. For example, we are now doing a project where we are studying the human-skin bacteria interaction in a specific skin disorder. The idea is that to cultivate these bacteria in the lab, so we can identify them and study their function. What do they produce? And what are the characteristics and qualities of each one? How do they interact with each other?

If you know that, you can set targets to develop new leads or improve existing products for the treatment. Computer simulations help us with that. The challenges we are facing now are how to harvest microorganisms from different human body parts, in such a way that we can culture them and mimic their natural environment. Then, we can analyse them in detail in order to map all the different bacteria, thus the composition, and predict and study their function in a healthy and diseased state. So it’s a big project and there are a lot of people involved.”

Sabina is working on several projects. In most of them, micro-models of the microorganisms play an important role. “At NIZO we have a method to re-create the bacteria of a colon/fecal a sample in the lab, the so-called micro-colon, which is a micro-model of the bacteria in our colon that can be applied to study the effect of different food components on the composition and function of the microorganisms in the colon. We are currently setting up similar methods for other areas of the human body. The possibilities are great, since the time-to-market for new products will decrease, as well as the need for animal testing.”

Previously, Sabina worked with intestinal tissue cultures. "We managed to culture intestinal tissue samples from different species and to keep them in culture for a long time. These “mini intestines” or as scientists call them “intestinal organoids” have of all the functional cell types that are normally present in the intestinal tissue. The advantage of this model is that the structure resembles the normal intestine and every cell type functions exactly as it does in a mammalian intestine. A mini-gut, so to speak.

Researchers all over the world are using similar technique and today, besides the mini-gut, mini-brains, mini-livers, and other lab models of the organs have been developed. To simulate the environment of the human body even better, it would be great to combine these tissue samples with the micro organisms. Because in our bodies, both work together, of course. Testing something on the tissue and the microorganisms at the same time could be very important, because of the interaction between the two, and it will make the tests much more reliable. It would be a great step up in our understanding of the human body, and the human-bacteria symbiosis.”

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