Martha Carlin, CEO The BioCollective focused on gut health, the human Microbiome and data

Microbiome
Listen to this episode

The BioCollective is a company that’s focused on gut health and the human Microbiome;  the BioCollective connects our membership and samples we collect with the research world to accelerate discovery and solutions in the Microbiome.

How did you get started?

  • I am not a biologist by training, I’m actually an accountant by training, accounting is one of the original systems, and I’m a systems thinker.   In 2002 my young 44-year-old husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  I looked at how science and medicine was approaching that problem and I said, “That’s never going to solve the problem or understand why. This is a complex problem and you have to take a systems approach.”
  • I started teaching myself science on the side and over 13 years I started with the food supply, how we grow our food, nutrition, and then I moved into the human systems and got, you know, back into chemistry and biology and molecular biology and genetics and epigenetics.

Big light bulb for me.

  • In 2014 I read a book by Dr. Martin Blaser of NYU called Missing Microbes
  • He was talking about the age of antibiotics and how we have seen this rise in chronic diseases since antibiotics have been ubiquitous in the environment, either from human prescribing or through use in animal feed and animal husbandry.
  • Two r three months after that I met a young man who was looking for an investor in a company called Pure Cultures and his background was fermentation chemistry.  I thought, “Geez, I think I’ll invest in that and I can learn a little bit about fermentation chemistry.”
  • About two months after that the first paper was published that correlated specific gut bacteria to the symptoms of Parkinson’s. And I said, “Eureka, this is it, this connects to all this science I’ve been studying all these years.” I quit my job and started funding a research project at the University of Chicago with Dr. Jack Gilbert, who’s now my cofounder and, you know, bouncing ideas back and forth with him. He has a son with autism and we started talking about how there were connections in the patterns in the gut with autistic children and people with Parkinson’s.
  • I met my third cofounder, Dr. Suzanne Vernon, who has a background in infectious disease and 17 years at the CDC and working on complex disease, like chronic fatigue. We saw patterns there, as well, and we said, “What’s holding back the research and discovery and our ability to solve these complex diseases?” Jack said, “Well, you know, it’s really access to samples from the broad population, and this is a really difficult sample to get.” That’s because it’s a stool sample and people don’t want to really have to think about that or deal with it. But if you go back to Hippocrates who said, “All disease begins in the gut,” I think that’s right.
  • That’s really the inspiration behind founding the company, was, you know, building this in order to help find a cure for Parkinson’s for my husband, but also to connect the dots across complex disease.

When you first started going down this path of discovery and you started getting connections to gut health, what changed in your household as far as diet or effect?

  • I cleaned out the pantry and everything that was processed went away and I tried to go all organic. But in 2002 it was really pretty difficult to go all organic. You know, there’s much more choice and availability today than there was back then. I’m a cook, fortunately, so, you know, that helped. But then I started looking and saying, “Okay, well, if I can’t go all organic, then I need to understand the food supply that we have and try to make better choices around that.”
  • We eat a lot more fresh vegetables and things that we’ve cooked ourselves, we don’t eat processed food, you know, unless when you’re traveling sometimes that’s all there is available. We eat a lot less meat because there’s a lot of antibiotics in the meat supply. So we still do eat meat, but we’re very careful about making sure that that is meat from a source that doesn’t use antibiotics in the animals. And, you know, it’s just a healthy, clean diet of fruits and vegetables, and mostly vegetables, and whole grains.
  • We don’t eat bread much anymore because the preservatives in most of the bread on the shelf, there’s something called calcium propionate that is actually harmful to the gut and can cause a number of, like, brain on fire kind of issues because you’ll be making too much of a certain short-chain fatty acid. So I think that may actually be more of the problem people have with bread today than, you know, gluten.

What are your observations about the Probiotic space and the yogurt craze, for lack of a better term?

  • Well, generally, you know, I like yogurt, but what we’ve done in industrializing our food supply is limited the number of strains of bacteria that are used in those cultures in order to do large scale industrial production. So, you know, if you look back 100 years ago, people were making their own yogurt and they were using wild fermentation. So there was a lot more variety in the strains of bacteria in the yogurt. So what you find today on the shelf is most yogurts will have, you know, just a handful of tightly controlled strains that are used for industrial production. So I don’t eat a lot of the industrial yogurts, I actually make my own yogurt.
  • On the Probiotic strains, you know, you have the similar thing. So if you walk into, you know, a store and they’ve got all these Probiotic on the shelves, and people will tell me, “Well, my eyes just glaze over.” And, you know, what I tell them is, you know, most of the Probiotic on the shelf today are about the same. Two-thirds of them come from just two manufacturers, global manufacturers. One is Christian Hansen out of Europe and the other is DuPont. And, you know, then there are some more boutique groups that provide some different strains, but the bulk of the things on the shelf are the same. Which is part of our mission at The BioCollective is bringing back diversity and developing new strains for the Probiotic market. And we actually have one.

New product

  • We have a new, what we call a functional probiotic where we’re putting back a system. And it’s different from the probiotics you see on the shelf today, which are, you know, maybe be bifidobacteria and lactobacillus. Which, if you’ve looked at probiotics, those are the common genus that you’ll see. We have actually added some other strains of bacteria that are from the food industry, so they’re generally regarded as safe, but you don’t typically see them in a probiotic formula.
  • This particular formula has shown to improve regularity, so it’s really a nice Probiotic if you have, you know, a problem with constipation. And it’s also effective in helping with glucose metabolism. So it takes both fructose and glucose, which we get way too much of in the Western diet, down a different pathway to make a different kind of sugar. And so we think that it’s going to be quite popular because it’s very different and the feedback from the people who’ve tried it has been great.

What are the general misconceptions, do you think, out there about probiotics, what they do and what they don’t do?

  • There’s a lot of misconceptions or just lack of understanding. You know, the research on a couple of strains is pretty extensive, showing how effective they are in triggering the immune system. So they help with your immune system. And, you know, there’s a group in Japan that makes the liquid Probiotic Yakult, they’ve got a lot of research behind the strains in Yakult and what that does. I actually know somebody who was having some serious digestive problems and took it and within six hours of taking it it was, like, gone.
  • There’s also this misconception that, you know, just because it’s traveling through the system and it doesn’t maybe stick to the wall of your gut, that it’s not doing anything. And, you know, if you know anything about fermentation science, there’s this kind of virtuous cycle in the world of microbes where, you know, one dies and feeds the next one. And so that’s really what we’re starting to learn in the microbial world with Probiotic, is, you know, even the dead cell wall of the Probiotic after it dies going through your gut, it is sending signals to your immune system.

We developed this sample kit.

  • One of the way to understand what’s going on in your gut is to take a look at your stool sample. And it’s a difficult sample to collect because, you know, people don’t want to deal with it. So actually for the first six months after we founded the company we spent our time working on and designing a kit that would make it easy, ick-free, and even kind of a little bit humorous so that you can collect your sample at home.we have this, I don’t know if you can see it on the camera, but it’s a little hammock that sits on your toilet and it gets the entire sample. And you don’t have to…and you just, like, pick up the arms and drop it in the two bags. And we have an ice brick, you FedEx it to us on ice, and then we take that sample and divide it up into sub-samples. And one of those samples goes off to sequencing and we provide data back to you about what’s in your gut and how you might be able to adjust your diet or do some things or where some risk points might be for you. It’s not a diagnostic of anything. You know, we’re careful to say that, but it is, you know, a pretty extensive learning tool and something that you could take to a physician and talk to them about.
  • Then we take your sample that’s been divided up and we sell those sub-samples to different researchers. So that one sample could have many different kinds of research done on it, so more data to be able to learn faster. So that’s one of those benefits. And then we share back with you the net profit off the sale of your sample. And then what we are also doing in those samples is isolating and culturing new strains of bacteria. And so from our larger membership group, if we discover a new strain of bacteria that might be interesting in a Probiotic and we take that through the regulatory process of what’s called generally regarded as safe and take that to market, we would also be sharing those revenues with our membership.And then our kit, because it is so easy to use and people are a lot more compliant with providing a sample, we’re actually working with academic institutions to use our kit for their larger research projects. So we’re currently selling kits to the University of Chicago, the National University of Singapore, and we’re in discussions right now with Harvard to do some of the components of our kit. So we’re, you know, starting to kind of take the kit to the world as an easy way to be able to collect that sample.

How does one become a member?

  • To become a member you just come to thebiocollective.com and join. There’s a two-step process where you complete the first step. And there’s a consent to be involved in research, so you complete the consent. And once that’s done, you’ll get an e-mail confirmation. Once you confirm your membership, then you can go into your dashboard, you can order a kit. And they’re available for purchase, they’re a fairly high-end kit. So the midpoint kit is $549. The high-end kit is $899. And then we have a low-end kit that’s $189.
  • You don’t get as much information with that lower end kit.And then…or what you can do, you can become a member and you don’t have to order a kit, you answer the survey questions. So we send out life and health history survey questions. And if in your survey data you qualify for one of the studies where we have a researcher who’s interested in, you know, some of the characteristics that you have, then we will provide you with a free kit. So, you know, if you’re willing to wait for some period of time until there’s a researcher interested in somebody like you, then you can get a kit for free.

Generous  offer for the mid-level kit.

  • BLP250 is the code, that qualifies the first 200?
  • First 200 people can get $250 off that midpoint kit.

What’s got you fired up about what you guys are doing?

  • I’m very fired up about the progress we’re making in Parkinson’s. We have found some pretty interesting connections, we think, to life health history, some infection history and use of antibiotics. We were able to confirm through a large data set that actually there is a higher risk of Parkinson’s in people who have had four or more strep infections and taken a repeated course of antibiotics. We’ve also built an artificial intelligence learning model that right now has about a 92% accuracy rate in predicting the Parkinson’s in the sample.
  • We’re hoping to do with that is to start to collect samples from people with Parkinson’s who have not started taking medications yet so that then we could see if there’s a difference between people on medication or not medication, and then have another predictor, and then be able to do an early diagnostic and take that through. Of course that would have to go through the FDA, but have some kind of an early diagnostic where we could turn people back. So if we see that they have an indication in their gut ecosystem that they’re at risk for Parkinson’s, we could turn them back early by regenerating the health of the gut. So that we’re pretty excited about.

What happens to our Microbiome after a course of antibiotics?

  • There’s lots of research on this actually in the book Missing Microbes that I mentioned that sort of set me down this path, it talks about that quite a bit. And they’ve done a lot of mouse model studies showing you have a resilience in your Microbiome to some extent where you can take a course of antibiotics and it will rebound, say, you know, 30 to 45 days later. But, you know, as you have in any ecosystem, if you continue to perturb it with antibiotics, the resilience, it gets less resilient over time. And then, you know, depending on what antibiotic you’re taking, some of Dr. Blaser’s research has shown that in some types of antibiotics it does not recover. They’ve also shown that there’s a difference in these mouse model studies where post-antibiotics the mouse that had the antibiotics will, on the same calorie load as the one that didn’t have the antibiotics, will load 20% more fat on the same diet.
  • If you want to learn more about it, Dr. Blaser’s book Missing Microbes is a great book. There’s a book called The Good Gut by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg out of Stanford that’s also a really good book that can help you learn a bit more about that and they talk about antibiotics.

Building a big data platform.

  • We’re also a data company. So we’re not just going to keep all of the data to ourselves, we are, you know, building a platform where researchers will be able to access our data and also help to make those connections.
  • By participating in The BioCollective, becoming a member, and answering those surveys you’re going to help accelerate those discoveries.

Building for our members The Life Health Timeline.

  • How I came to understand some of those pieces of the puzzle in Parkinson’s, was by interviewing people and understanding their life story.
  • People intuitively know often what’s connected to when they became sick. I mean I’ve talked to several people with Crohn’s and they can tell me to the day, you know, “This is what happened and I have never been well since. I know these two things are connected.

Website  www.thebiocollective.com.

Twitter @TBCMicrobes

LinkedIn  Martha Carlin

LinkedIn  The BioCollective