Merck, a leader in genome editing, has announced a collaboration with Washington University in St Louis, USA, that could lead to the optimising of nutritional supplements to restore a healthy gut microbial community (microbiome).

The research aims to determine the differences between gut bacterial communities in healthy and malnourished children, and to identify what features of healthy intestinal bacteria are critical for supporting healthy growth.

From there, nutritional approaches to restore a normal microbiome can be developed and optimised, as nutritional interventions to date have failed to solve the problem.

The two-year collaboration will employ Merck’s CRISPR genome-editing technology in research studies by Dr Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University School of Medicine.

“Development of the gut microbiome is disrupted in severely malnourished children, leaving them with immature communities compared with healthy children,” says Udit Batra, member of the executive board and CEO: life science at Merck. “Our collaboration with the leading expert in the study of the human microbiome, Dr Jeffrey Gordon, will focus on how to repair and reconstitute a normal microbiome in malnourished children.

“Using our foundational genome-editing technology, we will continue to form collaborations with the global scientific community to explore how to develop exciting new treatments for many diseases.”

CRISPR-based genomic scissors have unveiled new possibilities in medicine and biotechnology. Similar to a word processing program that finds, deletes and replaces words or letters, these CRISPR RNA-protein complexes search for certain DNA sequences in a cell, cut them and allow the cell to paste in new DNA information.

Merck, together with Dr Gordon’s group, will use its CRISPR genome scissors in this collaboration to modify the sequence of DNA in microbes cultured from human gut microbiome samples. The results will help the researchers obtain essential, new information about the microbes’ functions and nutritional needs.

“Our shared goal is to apply gene-editing technology to further understand the mechanisms by which beneficial human gut microbes promote healthy growth in children,” said Dr Gordon, director of the Edison Family Centre for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington University. “By marrying this technology with our preclinical models, we can decipher how gut microbes become established in the developing gut, what nutrients are necessary to sustain those microbes and how gut microbial communities influence muscle and bone growth, maturation of our immune systems and metabolic health.
“Development of a healthy gut community is linked to the healthy growth of infants and children. Results obtained from this collaboration should aid our ongoing efforts to devise new, safe and culturally acceptable ways to repair the developing gut communities in malnourished children or children at risk of malnutrition.

“This knowledge will facilitate development of new types of microbiota-directed foods, composed of naturally occurring ingredients, that increase the representation and beneficial functions of naturally occurring bacterial strains in the immature gut communities of these children,” Dr Gordon adds.

With a 13-year history in the genome-editing field, Merck was the first company to offer custom biomolecules for genome editing globally. It was also the first company to manufacture arrayed CRISPR libraries covering the entire human genome, accelerating cures for diseases by allowing scientists to explore more questions about root causes.