SAN FRANCISCO (GenomeWeb) – FitBiomics, a spinout from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, is sequencing the microbiomes of athletes to identify whether certain bacteria contribute to athletes' fitness. Its goal is to then isolate and develop those bacteria into probiotics.
Jonathan Scheiman, CEO of FitBiomics, is also a research fellow in George Church's lab at Harvard and the two are cofounders of the firm along with Alex Evans, who will serve as head of athletics. The firm currently has around 10 employees.
Scheiman said that the firm is currently incubating at the Wyss Institute, but hopes to officially spin out in the fall in a space in New York City. It will also submit a study for peer-reviewed publication and is aiming to close a seed round of funding of a couple million dollars, he said. Scheiman anticipates that FitBiomics would launch its first product about one year after the official launch.
The goal is to tap into the $60 billion probiotics market, and Scheiman said that with so many undiscovered gut bacteria there is plenty of room. FitBiomics' initial probiotic product will likely be related to recovery or muscle soreness prevention, and is based on work started at the Wyss Institute.
In an initial study, Scheiman recruited 20 runners who were participating in the 2015 Boston marathon and 20 sedentary controls. The researchers sequenced the microbiomes of each group daily for two weeks, including both before the marathon and after the marathon. Scheiman noted he spent many hours driving around Boston collecting fecal samples stored in dry ice.
That study found that in the runners the abundance of a bacteria that breaks down lactic acid spiked immediately after the marathon. Lactic acid is associated with fatigue and soreness and accumulates in the body after strenuous exercise.
"We've isolated it, purified it, showed it's safe for animals, and are now doing functional studies in mice," he said. The team is feeding the probiotic to mice to evaluate its effect on performance to see if it can potentially prevent fatigue and promote endurance. In addition, Scheiman said that since that marathon study, the researchers have found the same bacteria in studies of other athletes.
Scheiman presented on this initial work at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Washington, DC earlier this month. He said that the team is doing similar microbiome sequencing studies to look at ultramarathoners and also Olympic rowers. For each, the team tracks the microbiome in each individual longitudinally from before competition until after competition.
He said that the team has identified differences between the athletes and also differences in the individual athletes pre- and post-competition. For instance, he said, they have identified certain bacteria that break down carbohydrates and fibers in ultramarathoners that were not present in the Olympic rowers.
Aside from fecal samples, the researchers also collect data on the study participants' diet, health background, sleep, and information about the types and intensity of exercise.
Scheiman said that the firm holds intellectual property on several of the discoveries as well as the methods used and applications. The company uses standard metagenomic sequencing protocols, including both shotgun sequencing as well as a more targeted 16S sequencing strategy.
Scheiman said that FitBiomics' first commercial product would likely be a probiotic developed from the marathon study. Because the product will not be a therapeutic, the main regulatory hurdle will be to demonstrate that it is safe by doing toxicology studies, he said. However, he said that in order to make functional claims about a probiotic's impact on performance or recovery, that would require additional double-blinded placebo-controlled studies, he said.
In addition, Scheiman said that, ultimately, some of the discoveries and products could have applications beyond sports nutrition, for instance, for obesity or gut inflammation prevention, he said.