Interview with Jessica Richman of uBiome

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Jessica Richman

Jessica Richman is CEO and co-founder of uBiome, a company that provides human microbiome testing. In 2013 she spoke at TedMed, asking Why Should Science be Limited to Scientists? Ubiome is the result of her passion to make the science of the microbiome available to all.  The following questions for Jessica were sourced from the Facebook FMT (fecal microbiota transplant) Discussion group.

For the benefit of those new to uBiome, what kind of testing kits do you offer?

Thanks so much for the questions, Tracy! Really excited to meet your readers. uBiome is a microbiome sequencing service that lets you explore the populations of bacteria living on and inside your body. We offer kits to test five sites on your body – gut, mouth, nose, skin, and genitals.

What genera do you test for?

We measure the levels of dozens of different bacteria at the genus level, including Faecalibacterium, Bacteroides, Clostridium, Ruminococcus, Roseburia, Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and many others.

What do the results tell your customers?

After we analyze your sample, you’ll get to see detailed information on each of these kinds of bacteria – what their names are, how many of each kind there are, what their functions are in the body. And while uBiome is not a diagnostic test, you’ll be able to compare your results to the aggregate results of everyone who’s done the test, and with specific groups of people. You could look at how your microbiome compares to vegans, or smokers, or people on antibiotics, for example. Some people are using it to see how they compare to themselves over time (before and after going gluten-free, or starting a new medication, or at home vs. traveling abroad.)

Who are the end users of your product?  Do you profile your customers?

uBiome members range from biohackers to academic institutions to companies to people with chronic conditions wanting to study a variety of research questions related to the microbiome. We do ask people to answer an optional, private survey when they register their kits, and we keep all data de-identified for the privacy of our members.

Do medical professional use your tests?

Yes, we have many doctors, dentists, naturopaths, and other medical professionals contacting us to do microbiome studies on themselves and/or their patients.

What are you learning from all the people you’re profiling?

It’s still early days. We’re hard at work on analytics and will be publishing findings from our growing dataset on our blog and in our newsletter. Sign up for updates!

Why have you chosen the range of genera tested?  Might the exclusions limit the usefulness of the data?

We use using 16S-sequencing on the Illumina Next Generation Sequencing platform. 16S is a ribosomal gene present in bacterial DNA, which makes it possible for us to classify any bacteria in your sample all the way down to the genus level while filtering out any human genetic material. So basically we look at a section of DNA that is only found in bacteria and is very good at telling us what kinds of bacteria are in your samples.

Are you intending to identify particular species? Given that many genera contain both beneficial and harmful species, this information would be interesting.  If so what is the timeline?

Interesting question! We’re always working hard on improving our testing protocols, and don’t have a specific timeline right now.

Much of the microbiome is thought to be non-bacterial. Will you eventually be identifying parasites, viruses etc?

Same answer as the previous question! It’s great to hear what you’re interested in learning about, and if enough people request it, we will do what we can to help you get the data you want.

What are the barriers to identifying what a person is missing in their biome and then being prescribed the missing pieces through either the vehicle of someone else’s fecal matter or a pro-biotic? Will it take years to get there?

Wow, yes, there’s still so much research to be done in this area. Even just to start to understand what the optimal balance of organisms in each individual’s microbiome might be at each moment in time is not a trivial challenge. Definitely a lot of promise here though, especially for people living with chronic digestive diseases.

A similar product, which involved genetic testing (23andMe) was stopped from providing analysis with their test results. Do you provide analysis with your results? Is this likely to happen in future?

While 23andMe was providing a sense of genetic risk of different health conditions to their users, uBiome does not predict or diagnose any disease or offer any medical advice. We offer tools to help people participate in personal research and explore their own microbiome, but it definitely can’t replace your doctor. What we can do is compare you to other groups based on aggregate data and survey answers, and we are currently developing a sophisticated insight engine around this.

Are the raw FASTA files available to customers in case in the future they wish to reanalyze their own microbiota using updated analysis pipelines? Why or why not?

Yes, uBiome members can download their raw microbiome data.

What do you hope to achieve by offering microbiome testing? Is it simply a profit-making enterprise or are there broader goals?

We have a strong social mission of enabling citizen science around the microbiome, so that people whose lives could be most affected by new research breakthroughs actually have a chance to be part of the process up front and help set the agenda. uBiome wants to enable anyone to start a study, share what they’ve learned, and collaboratively add to the world’s knowledge about this emerging and powerful field. In a talk I gave at TEDMED a couple of years ago, I asked the question, “Could a citizen scientist win the Nobel Prize?” It’s really about leveling the playing field to help science go faster.

There seems to be some resistance to the citizen science concept in academic circles. How do you respond to this?

I don’t think citizen science is here to replace academic research. Definitely not. We need dedicated scientists doing rigorous, careful, peer-reviewed studies – that’s not going to go away. But citizen science is complementary, scrappy, vast, and can help generate new ideas really quickly. Outside of an academic institution, it’s easier to try a million little projects out, without having to budget lab time and allocate research grant money. And once something promising emerges from the million little projects, maybe in an area that nobody’s looked before, a bigger study can be justified. So I see citizen scientists and academic researchers working in synergy for the greater good.

What is your greatest wish for scientific research to further understanding of the human microbiome?

Great question! I’d love to hear what you and your readers have to say about this one, too! My wish is that a deeper understanding of our microbiome will lead to healthier, happier humans.

Do you have IBD? uBiome has 250 free test kits to give away…

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Categories: fecal microbiota transplant

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2 replies »

  1. Hi
    Do I participate in this test ?and what is the instruction?
    Thank you in advance

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