Gut feeling: How this scientist's obsession is shaping crucial research
PUBLISHED: 10:42 21 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:13 31 October 2019
Archant Norfolk 2018
Could gut microbial communities be key to preventing diseases like cancer? Gut microbe specialist Dr Lindsay Hall thinks so. Stevie Smith visited the Quadram Institute to learn how one lab is turning poo into new medical treatments.
Each month we meet the real-life heroes working at Norwich Research Park to learn how their work is changing lives. Click for more stories on the Norwich Research Park Lifechangers
What first sparked your interest in science?
My mum was a biology teacher and my dad's a geologist - he used to make us do fieldwork during the holidays, measuring and counting rocks, which you'd think would probably put me off, but I really enjoyed it! We were always encouraged to ask 'Why?' and understand how things work.
I learned that I loved being immersed in research and developing medical treatments during a university placement in Canada. Microbes are all around us and are so important in our everyday lives.
Why is specialising in gut bacteria especially exciting to you?
Most people think bacteria are bad, but in reality, most are positive. We can find good bacteria in soil, in the air, the oceans and we also have a huge community living inside us! As well as helping digestion, they perform so many other crucial functions, like programming our immune system, which is kind of a bit crazy when you think about it.
They're also really important for fighting off bad bacteria. If you eat something contaminated with nasty food poisoning bacteria like Salmonella, more often than not, your gut bacteria will fight the impact, so you don't need to take a course of antibiotics. Beneficial bacteria play a huge role in human and animal health, which is why I'm fascinated by them.
What are you working on right now?
We've just received Big C funding for our 'BEAM' (Breast cancEr And Microbiome) Study. For this exciting project we are exploring the role our gut microbes may play in relation to breast cancer. As a whopping 70% of our immune cells are in the gut, and we know that immune responses against cancer cells are really important, recent work suggests that our gut bacteria can actually change and improve cancer responses.
This is cutting-edge research within a very new field, and it's really exciting to be working with a local charity like Big C. Right now, we're recruiting our first participants who are currently undergoing cancer care at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital to see how their gut microbes change over the course of their routine treatment, like chemotherapy. A lot of patients receive antibiotics, particularly if they undergo surgery, but antibiotics don't discriminate between good and bad bacteria - and we hope this research will eventually inform new medical treatments to solve this challenge.
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You do a lot of work with schools and communities - why is that important to you?
Scientists do a really important job, but it's up to us to go out and tell everybody about the exciting work in a way that's accessible - that's the only way to make sure it continues. To explain our work, we built a giant gut filled with 5,000 LED lights that flash in different colours to represent different bacteria. You can walk inside and learn how lifestyle factors - like what we eat, or if we take a course of antibiotics - influences which microbes we have inside us, and what that means for the long and the short term. The kids love it; there are trillions of bacteria in the gut, which just blows their minds!
What are some of the future breakthroughs you're expecting to see within the field?
Every single bacterium in the gut does a slightly different job, so the breakthrough lies in us fully understanding how these bacteria do their jobs. That will allow us to be really specific in our treatments. In the future, we should be able to prevent certain diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, cancers and Type 2 diabetes, simply by making sure certain collections of microbes are present in the gut and putting any important missing microbes back.
So where would that supplementary bacteria actually come from?
We actually get it from poo [laughs]. We deal with lots of poo in the lab, which everybody gets a bit squeamish about but actually it's an incredible sample set for us to use!
Another study we've just started is a great example of this. Working with the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, the 'PEARL' (Pregnancy & Early Life) Study is following healthy pregnant women to help us understand which microbes are associated with a healthy pregnancy and what beneficial microbes they pass onto their babies. By taking samples during and after pregnancy, we can understand which specific bacteria are associated with healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, then use those that bacteria to develop new therapies for pregnant women or infants experiencing complications.
How do you spend your time outside of science?
I'm a huge football fan, and used to play for Sprowston Ladies football team, and still miss it (and the team) a lot. Growing up, we used to do fairly crazy holidays. One summer we drove from Edinburgh to Bulgaria! Me, my brother and sister were all crammed in the back, and we stopped along the way to places like Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. That love of exploring different cultures hasn't left me.
Dr Lindsay Hall is microbiome group leader at the Quadram Institute, based at Norwich Research Park. Follow the lab on Twitter @hall_lab