Researcher studies how long immunity lasts
What is the microbiome, and what might studying it reveal about diseases? Researcher Joel Wilmore, PhD, explains the microbiome and which aspects of it he is studying, such as how immunity to various illnesses holds up over time. Wilmore, a microbiologist and immunologist from Upstate, recently won a $2 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to study the microbiome.
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse New York invites you to be "The Informed Patient" with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith. A microbiologist-immunologist from Upstate recently was awarded a $2 million federal grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to study the microbiome. Dr. Joel Wilmore is here to tell about his research of the microbiome. Welcome to "The Informed Patient," Dr. Wilmore.
Joel Wilmore, PhD: Thanks.
Host Amber Smith: I'd like to have you describe for us what exactly is the microbiome?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: So the microbiome is basically when you think of, well, so starting when you think about a biome, when I think of biome, I think of like a forest. It's the trees, it's the animals that make up that. The microbiome is essentially the individual animal, and everything that's living on and inside of that animal. So that would include bacteria, fungi, viruses, and the host itself.
Host Amber Smith: So it's every organism for, like, the human biome, it's everything that makes up my body?
Exactly. So it's your body and then all of the bacteria and things that are living on and inside your gastrointestinal tract and lungs and any other tissue that might have bacteria in it.
So some of these organisms are helpful or positive and good, and some of them are harmful though, right?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: Well, for the most part in a healthy person, the organisms will just be either helpful or sort of like a neutral, what we call commensalism, which means that they're not doing any harm, but they live in peace in your body.
Host Amber Smith: Does each individual have a different microbiome, or are most people's microbiomes comprised of similar organisms?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: So most people would have a unique signature of species in their microbiome. But everyone has, like, common threads, where you have bacteria that do similar functions. They may be the same species, but there might be different strains. So there's a lot of variability between people, but there are a lot of, like, common threads where there's a lot of bacteria that are shared between microbiomes.
Host Amber Smith: How long has science known about the existence of the microbiome?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: The study of the microbiome as a field has been really something of the last maybe 50 years with a real uptick in the last 15 or 20 years, due to the ability to do really in depth sequencing of the DNA of all the different bacteria. And it's not so much the ability to do the sequencing, but the cost has dropped dramatically thanks to the human genome project and things like that, which have led to a really dramatic decrease in the cost of sequencing all these bacteria and understanding just how complex the microbiome really is.
Host Amber Smith: So are, our microbiomes determined by our genes?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: I would say that the microbiome's not really determined by your genes as much as by different factors such as your exposures growing up, your exposure from your mother at birth, if you've taken antibiotics, your diet, there's all sorts of different things that determine your microbiome and your own genetics are probably the least of the factors that are involved.
Host Amber Smith: Are there diseases that are tied to the microbiome?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: Yes, actually. So that's, really the microbiome field over the last 10 to 20 years has tied a lot of diseases to the microbiome, but we've really lacked the ability to sort of nail down any specific bacteria to a specific disease.We just know that there's a lot of associations at this point. There are certain bacteria that have, like, really tight links to disease such as Helicobacter pylori, which has been shown to be involved in in gastric cancers and ulcers, for example. But for the most part, there's just, it's more correlation than causation.
Host Amber Smith: Is there a way for people to figure out if their microbiome is healthy or not, or if there's something wrong with it?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: I don't know if there's a way clinically that you could know, but I would say that there's ways to promote healthy microbiomes, including, having a diverse diet and eating a lot of vegetables that are high in fiber and things like that can promote a healthy microbiome. And, taking fermented foods and yogurts and things like that are good for the microbiome as well.
Host Amber Smith: This is Upstate's "The Informed Patient" podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith. I'm talking with Dr. Joel Wilmore for Upstate's department of microbiology and immunology. Our topic is the microbiome because Dr. Wilmore recently was awarded a $2 million federal grant to study the microbiome.
Well, I'd like to ask you to tell us about the research you'll be doing with this federal grant you were awarded. What are you looking into?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: So in my lab, I study the immune system, and specifically I study the cells that make antibodies. So antibodies are these molecules that are made specifically in response to pathogens, but also in response to our commensal bacteria. And the cells that make them tend to live for really long periods of time. In certain situations, like when you get the vaccine to measles, mumps, rubella, for example, those antibody responses last for a really long period of time. And then where my interest is, is where you have really short lived antibody responses to things like the salmonella vaccine, which has been shown to only provide protection for about two to five years. And you know, most people might be aware that antibody responses to the mRNA vaccines that have come out for SARS CoV-2 seem to wane over the course of six months to a year as well.
So my main interest is trying to understand the difference between certain antibody responses that last really long periods of time, and then these antibody responses that last short periods of time, which is how I ended up getting into the microbiome because the microbiome has been thought to really only create short-lived antibiotic responses. But my research has sort of suggested otherwise.
Host Amber Smith: Interesting. Now, you used a term, you said "commensal" bacteria, and I was going to ask you, what is the difference between commensal bacteria and host bacteria, and are we talking about bacteria that are part of the biome or do they come and join later?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: So commensal bacteria is just a term for the bacteria in your microbiome that are sort of a net, there's no net gain for the host. So in the case of a human, you don't really gain anything from having these bacteria in your gut, but they don't do any harm. There's also bacteria that are in your gut that are a symbiance. We provide them a home to live, and we provide them food by eating, and then they break down fiber and things like that in our gut. So there's, so symbiotes are really critical for human health. Commensals are just sort of more of a neutral. They just tend to live in your gut and don't do any harm, but don't really provide a whole lot of positive either.
Host Amber Smith: Do these bacteria influence or do they have any role in how long an antibody protects us?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: So that's exactly where my research has been going. So when when we looked at responses to these bacteria, other commensals or symbiotes, we found that certain bacteria induced the antibody producing cells, which we call plasma cells, to go to places in the body that allow them to live for a long period of time. And other bacteria don't induce those. So we're really trying to study why some of these bacteria can induce long lived responses, and some only induce short lived response.
Host Amber Smith: Interesting. Now, if you figure out how to manipulate these antibodies or how long they're going to work, what might that lead to? How would that advance science?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: So it's becoming increasingly important to induce IgA (immunoglobulin A) antibodies. So the IgA antibodies that we study are really specific to the gut, or the gastrointestinal tract and the lungs. So, IgA antibodies are unique in that they can be secreted from your gut lining and your lungs outside of your body. Whereas most antibodies, they stay inside your body.
So if you get an infection, like, we'll use the example of the flu. Most of that starts in your upper respiratory tract. Antibodies that can get out of your body can prevent the infection from happening in the first place. And, it gives you that extra layer. So you, so if you can induce these specialized mucosal antibodies, these IgA antibodies, and get them to live for a long period of time, then you might be able to have a better layer of protection to these types of infections.
Host Amber Smith: Infections that would affect the lungs or the gastrointestinal tract?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: Correct. Yes. So, the gastrointestinal tract as well. So in the case of the salmonella vaccine that I mentioned earlier, you produce both an IgA response, which is this secreted antibody, but you also produce an IgG (immunoglobulin G anibodies) response. And both of those are short lived, which is really sort of a unique thing. But, If you can get a long lived antibody IgA response to something in the gastrointestinal tract, then you could provide protection for all sorts of different bacteria like salmonella or certain strains of E. Coli that cause you to get ill. So the idea would just be inducing long lived responses to mucosal pathogens, which has been difficult. If we can sort of learn how the commensal bacteria induce long lived responses, we can incorporate that into better vaccine development.
Host Amber Smith: Interesting. Okay. Well, how did you yourself get involved in science?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: I've always had an interest in science in a general sense, and interestingly, my (West Genesee) high school biology teacher who's now a state senator, John Mannion, really, like, gave me this passion for biology. And before taking biology in high school, I was more interested in sort of the physics and that side of science. And then, you know, I just took off from there and been studying biology since college.
And the immune system interested me because it's so complex, and there's a lot of really difficult problems that just are really interesting. Being in this, like, problem solving role is really what I wanted to do, and academic science and doing research is, perfect for that.
Host Amber Smith: Did you have an interest in the microbiome before studying it became part of your job?
Joel Wilmore, PhD: Not really. I actually sort of just fell into this. I was studying just the immune system at just the general level. We were immunizing mice with sort of model antigens, things that don't even infect people, just studying the nitty gritty about the immune system. And we sort of stumbled upon these interesting things that involved the microbiome. And during my postdoctoral studies, I created this whole project just out of observations that we made in the lab studying normal immune responses. And then it's sort of taken over my entire research program now.
Host Amber Smith: Dr. Wilmore, thank you so much for making time for this interview.
Joel Wilmore, PhD: Oh yeah. Thank you for having me.
Host Amber Smith: My guest has been Dr. Joel Wilmore. He's an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Upstate. "The Informed Patient" is a podcast covering health, science, and medicine, brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and produced by Jim Howe. Find our archive of previous episodes at Upstate.edu/Informed. This is your host, Amber Smith, thanking you for listening.