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Mirror, mirror on the wall: which microbiomes will help heal them all?

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Clinicians have known for centuries that there is substantial variability between patients in their response to medications-some individuals exhibit a miraculous recovery while others fail to respond at all. Still others experience dangerous side effects. The hunt for the factors responsible for this variation has been aided by the ability to sequence the human genome, but this just provides part of the picture. Here, we discuss the emerging field of study focused on the human microbiome and how it may help to better predict drug response and improve the treatment of human disease.


Various clinical disciplines characterize drug response using either continuous or categorical descriptors that are then correlated to environmental and genetic risk factors. However, these approaches typically ignore the microbiome, which can directly metabolize drugs into downstream metabolites with altered activity, clearance, and/or toxicity. Variations in the ability of each individual's microbiome to metabolize drugs may be an underappreciated source of differences in clinical response. Complementary studies in humans and animal models are necessary to elucidate the mechanisms responsible and to test the feasibility of identifying microbiome-based biomarkers of treatment outcomes. We propose that the predictive power of genetic testing could be improved by taking a more comprehensive view of human genetics that encompasses our human and microbial genomes. Furthermore, unlike the human genome, the microbiome is rapidly altered by diet, pharmaceuticals, and other interventions, providing the potential to improve patient care by re-shaping our associated microbial communities.

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