Neuroendocrinologist Mark Heiman, chief scientific officer at MicroBiome Therapeutics, works with colleagues to develop unique nutritional therapies that are plant-based dietary supplements. Heiman emphasizes that people should eat more diverse diets and avoid habitual ones. In this video, he describes his team’s unique approach including the use of blueberries in supplements to treat illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.
My name is Mark Heiman, and I am the chief scientific officer at MicroBiome Therapeutics. What I hope people can take away today is that the microbiome is driven by our diets. And a microbiome is an ecosystem, and ecosystems that have the most diversity are healthy ecosystems. And that seems to be the case for microbiome. The GI [gastrointestinal] microbiome that has the most abundance of many different species is always the one that’s found in healthy states. As soon as there’s a disease state, one of two species start to predominate and we’ve lost diversity. And so what we have found is that our diets have become less diverse over the last 50 years, and this coincides with the increase in incidents of obesity and type 2 diabetes, even behavior disorders like autism, Alzheimer’s.
And we believe that we need to figure out ways to increase the diversity of our diets to find a different way to ward off these different disease states. I really think that we all should try to eat as most diverse as we can and the most whole foods that we can, because even whole foods contain many more molecules than our processed food. Although there are processed foods now that are specially designed to give back something that we don’t normally eat.
So some food processors try to create maybe a healthy blueberry as a sort of candy. An individual normally would not eat that. So by finding ways to make edible something that people might not think would be too bad might actually add to the diversity of a diet. So I don’t think it’s always bad. It’s always bad if one always eats the same diet over and over again. Habitual diets are probably bad diets. NM504 [microbiome modulator for treating obesity and diabetes] was a startup company. We were new and we wanted to get in the clinic fast because we wanted to learn how to measure the microbiome.
Even though we were going to treat pre-diabetics, we didn’t know what the microbiome of a pre-diabetic looked like yet. So we focused on the type 2 diabetics, and by focusing on the type 2 diabetic and the microbiome reported a type 2 diabetic, we realized that we wanted to add something that would increase short-chain fatty acids. There are certain families of bacteria that make short-chain fatty acids. We wanted to find an ingredient that would be safe that would stimulate the bacteria that creates short-chain fatty acids. And for that, we use inulin. We also know that a type 2 diabetic has a chronic level of low inflammation of the gut. Some of that is because the mucous barrier has been eroded. We wanted to do something that would be beneficial to the individuals that had this, so we chose that our microbiome modulator should have beta glucan. So we added some beta glucan to it.
And lastly, we knew that there was an overpopulation of methane producers in the type 2 diabetic, and also sulphur-reducing bacteria. So we had to think how could we make a difference here. We don’t want to give an antibiotic, but we wanted to decrease the production of methane and what methane produces. So in this case, we thought of competition. Why not find another family of bacteria that likes to use hydrogen that can compete if we give them something that they can thrive on? And that happened to be polyphenols from blueberries. So that’s how we came up with the idea to make NM504, and also the IRB, or the investigative research board, allowed us to go quickly into people, saying it’s a food. It’s safe, so go ahead and do your research.
If I go to a restaurant and I go to the restaurant repeatedly, I don’t always order the same menu item. Let’s try something new. When I go to or when they go to a farmer’s market, when people go to a farmer’s market, look for things that you normally wouldn’t eat and say, hey, I’m going to try this. Even if you don’t know how to prepare it, you might ask. I don’t know how to eat a kohlrabi. And you might be told why don’t you make cole slaw out of it. So any opportunity that one could have to increase the diversity of their diet, they should take advantage of that. I have been talking to food scientists here, and actually I was a bit surprised. So when I talk about the microbiome to food scientists, they think fiber. Everybody thinks fiber, and that’s the only thing for a microbiome.
That’s not the only item. Food has a vast array of nutrients. Micronutrients, macronutrients, and those that aren’t absorbed all enter the microbiome. All of them. There’s 100 trillion bacteria and fungi there. All of them have their own little biochemistry and are specialists at each one of these nutrients, and they’re converting these nutrients to different molecules. So it’s not all just fiber. Fiber’s the best known. Fiber’s well known, but it’s all foods, and all foods contain many molecules that interact with the microbiome—all probably healthy. I definitely believe we should consider throughout life and I think especially during different stages of life. My children are all grown up now, but if I had a new baby, I might think differently about how I switched the baby onto solid foods and what solid foods would I introduce, and what variety.
And I probably wouldn’t do much more variety than what the child likes to eat. I think pregnancy is another physiological state. There’s a reason pregnant women become hungry. They have cravings. There must be a reason for that, and I believe that some of that reason is the signals from the microbiome that they’re in. So I think it’s not just one size fits all. Athletes, I think, would require different types of foods, and we need to learn all this. It’s just too early of a field to answer any question perfectly, but I don’t think it’s too early to think about diversity. I think everyone in these physiological states should think what would be most beneficial for me to eat? And not get into a habitual diet.
So that’s a part I run into a little bit of trouble talking to people, not particularly at this meeting, but especially a lot of my friends who really like the South Beach Diet … like the Atkins Diet … fad diets. Fad diets are always cutting out some component. By cutting it out, you’ve cut out a lot of diversity. It would be much better to eat a little bit of all components. Much better to eat even a little bit of sugar, and not cut it out completely. A little bit of salt, even. It’s much better to eat a little bit of everything than it is to eat a whole lot of one or two things. And that’s the other problem with fad diets. Usually, if you cut out your carbohydrates from all your diets, you compensate or overcompensate or maybe have this false impression that now I can eat as much protein and as much fat as I want.
And a lot of people on a high-protein diet believe I can eat as much protein as I want. Now you’re selecting for a microbiome that really prefers the protein that you have just ingested, and you’re selecting against the microbiota that doesn’t exist there. You’re not feeding them anything, so you’re selecting for a certain microbiome that lacks diversity.
The microbiome has been mapped. But that just means you know who they are. Now we need to know what do they do. And I think that’s a really bright future for food scientists. What are they doing? What is each one of them doing and what is their signal? And how did the specific food interact with that microbiome to give a signal? For example, the microbiome may give a signal.
When they are not receiving the substrate, or nutrient that they need, they might have a signal that goes through our brain and says eat and crave sugar. And at those points, you have to eat sugar and you are feeding the microbiome and that releases another signal that says stop eating. Those loops are going to be really important. Those loops are going to interact with our hormone or our endocrine system, with our neuronal system, and that’s the future, the next 20 years. It’s not what bacteria are there. It’s what do they do and how do they interact with food to make a change in our physiology. It’s exciting.