Early last month, the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, CT held its second annual symposium, “Microbiome Meets Cancer and Immunology.” This year’s event came on the heels of the formation of the Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI), a consortium of microbiome researchers from across the country that includes JAX Professor and Director for Microbial Genomics George Weinstock.

Because the goal of this blog series is to highlight advancements in microbiome research and development, previous articles in the series have tended to focus on the most well-studied and commercially-advanced areas of microbiome research. However, not only can bacteria in the gut have impacts on distal tissues and organs, but also bacteria and other microogranisms colonize nearly every organ and tissue. As such, there are countless other aspects of the human microbiome that have been previously understudied and, sometimes, underappreciated.  This session at JAX brings attention to these emerging areas of research, which hold great promise for the development of therapies for autoimmune diseases and cancer. Ongoing research and commercial developments in these specialty areas will be reviewed in articles in 2016.

Dr. Weinstock organized and delivered opening remarks for the one-day event, which drew attendees from across CT, as well as, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and California. Michael Stitzel, a co-organizer of the conference and Assistant Professor at JAX, moderated the morning session on “Inflammation, Microbiome, and Autoimmunity.” The Salk Institute’s Janelle Ayres, Assistant Professor of Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis, gave the morning’s first talk, “Infection and Inflammation Induced Muscle Wasting Protection Mediated by the Microbiome.” She described her recent finding that a member of the mouse microbiome, Ecoli O21:H+, protects from muscle wasting following infection or in a colitis model. Her studies were published in the October 30th issue of Science.

Gary Huffnagle, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Michigan, reported pioneering research on the lung microbiome. Previously believed to be a sterile site, the healthy lung harbors a low level of microbes with a community composition resembling that of the mouth. During disease, the profile of this community shifts, enriching for Proteobacteria, a major group of gram-negative bacteria. His remarks were followed by a talk from David Artis, Professor of Immunology at Weill Cornell, on “Immune Regulation at Barrier Surfaces.” He discussed the function of innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) in diverse tissues, including those in the lung, gut, and in different types of adipose tissue.

To close the morning session, Mount Sinai’s Miriam Merad, shared her work on “Identification of a Commensal that Shapes Gut Tissue Immunity and Repair.” The commensal, Trichomonas muris, a protozoan associated with mice, protects mice from infection and colitis. A Professor of Oncological Sciences, Medicine, Hematology and Medical Oncology, Dr. Merad also demonstrated that the microbiome mediates macrophage-neuronal crosstalk: in the intestine, macrophages signal to neurons by secreting bone morphogenetic protein 2 (BMP2), while enteric neurons promote macrophage development by producing colony stimulatory factor 1 (CSF1). The microbiota modulates expression of the genes that control these signals.

JAX Professor Karolina Palucka moderated the afternoon session, “Microbiome, Inflammation, and Cancer.” To start, Alexander Chervonsky, Associate Professor of Pathology/Molecular Pathogenesis and Molecular Medicine at the University of Chicago, discussed “Microbiota and Host Immunity.” His work explained the mechanisms by which the gut microbiota regulates two distinct processes: the development of type 1 diabetes and the addition of sugar residues to intestinal epithelia – called fucosylation – in response to infection.  Next, JAX Assistant Professor Julia Oh presented her seminal work characterizing the skin microbiome in healthy and diseased individuals. Her remarks were followed by a talk from Gabriel Nuñez, Professor of Pathology at University of Michigan. Speaking on “Pathogen Virulence, Host Immunity, and Microbiota,” Dr. Nuñez demonstrated a dual role for host immunity and microbiome-mediated clearance in a mouse model of pathogenic, intestinal E. coliinfection.

José R. Conejo-Garcia, Professor of Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis at the Wistar Institute, detailed the influence of the microbiome on tumor growth in different tumor types in his talk, “Commensal Organisms and Polymorphic Mucosal Surfaces Determine the Effectiveness of Anti-Tumor Immunotherapies.” The session’s keynote, “Cancer as a Disease of the Symbiont/Metaorganisms,” delivered by the NIH’s Giorgio Trichieri, described the connections between the microbiome, inflammation, and tumor growth, and while also highlighting the work of several previous presenters.

Overall, it was an exciting day of talks: the event was a fantastic opportunity to showcase research into less conventional, but therapeutically important, aspects of the microbiome.  The symposium’s proceedings illustrated the diversity of human microbiome research beyond the gut, the complex interplay between microbes and host at these sites, and the recognition of the role of the microbiome in systemic disease.