The Future Starts Here: The Rise of the Microbiome

Jasmina Aganovic

There’s an important dynamic at play between consumers and scientists right now. These two worlds were once far apart, but have recently started to overlap. This is especially evident in the field of the microbiome, where it could even be argued that public demand has become a driver of the science. Never before has a topic been spoken about so publicly and marketed ahead of extensive clinical and scientific validation.

It’s also worth noting that the microbiome is the ultimate underdog story — most of us grew up having been told that bacteria causes bad things: breakouts, illness, bad smells, etc. Bacteria was simply something to get rid of to ensure to be our cleanest, healthiest selves.

And so we cleaned and scrubbed our way to health…or so we thought. Statistics relating to skin health (and health in general) present compelling evidence indicating that our skin is less healthy than it was a generation ago: 80 million Americans suffer from acne, and 1 in 6 children has eczema. Over 50% of adults claim to have sensitive skin, and it’s the fastest growing category in skin care.  We are cleaner than ever and have more products than ever, yet we also have more skin issues than ever.  

While the root cause for many of these things are likely multifactorial, more and more research is pointing to bacteria being a necessary part of our health. Yes, there are bacteria that are harmful, but actually, those make up less than 0.0014% of all bacterial strains that have been identified. The rest (99.99%) are largely not yet understood (and now that we are taking a closer look at them, some even appear to be helpful to us).

The gut microbiome has done a lot of the heavy lifting in reframing our relationship with bacteria. As people are becoming more aware of the benefits of good bacteria in digestive health, there is also a shifting view our bodies as ecosystems, rather than simply tissues and organs. While still a stretch, it is slowly becoming less of one to see how the same is true for their skin.

In 2014, even we thought the concept of our skin needing bacteria was a stretch for most. Our minds were changed when Julia Scott wrote a provocative article for the NY Times called, “My No-Soap, No-Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich Experiment. It detailed her experience in our early cosmetic clinical study, where she abandoned all modern personal care products, took water-only showers, and used a live culture of the bacteria found in our AO+ Mist twice a day. She shared what she noticed about the change in her skin, hair, and odor (lovely!). Her first-hand, unfiltered experience was forwarded and shared with millions of people. It created a wave of unanticipated interest and discussion.

We then took a step back to understand why we had underestimated public interest in the subject and why the article generated the response that it did. The article challenged many norms we’ve believed our entire lives — norms we have followed dutifully, and yet most of us have not gotten the results we’ve expected. Many of the people who contacted us in those days (and still to this day) have tried everything possible for mild to serious issues based on existing belief systems. That article by Julia Scott introduced our research as an entirely new belief system that could also explain why their previous one was not working.

While it’s one thing to read words on a paper, it’s another thing to actually experience it yourself as Julia Scott did. This is the genesis of Mother Dirt. While starting a consumer facing aspect to our research was not part of our original plan, the article showed us that a physical product provides something people can interact directly with. It is their personal journey that can challenge cultural bias. The result is that the products create a powerful vehicle for driving this conversation in public health.

And the conversation is happening. It’s been less than 5 years since that NYTimes article came out, but there has been tremendous growth and interest both on the research and consumer-facing sides (not to mention endless articles about new discoveries and speculative ideas). It’s projected that this industry across everything from healthcare to consumer products will be worth $65 billion by 2024.

The impact of this ongoing and prevalent conversation is something you can see already: It’s now becoming more common for primary care doctors to prescribe a probiotic in conjunction with antibiotics. Kombucha has transformed from a specialty item found only at health food stores to something you can pick up at your local drug store. Kimchi and Sauerkraut have become dietary staples, along endless other fermented and probiotic-infused foods.

This public interest has placed more scrutiny on the science. Together, these are driving a big financial appetite by investors, creating support for entrepreneurs and researchers with big ideas in the space.

Companies like Ubiome specialize in at-home gut and vaginal biome screenings. OpenBiome works in stool donations, enabling people to get live-saving fecal transplants. Seres Therapeutics was also the first publicly traded microbiome biotech company based off of their work on treatments for C Diff. In 2016 the FDA banned triclosan, which is the active ingredient in many antibacterial soaps, stating it’s no more effective than washing with soap and water, and that it could actually do more harm than good over time.

Even museums have started to showcase the microbiome as part of our future. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has an exhibit on display until Nov 2018 called “The Future Starts Here: 100 projects shaping the world of tomorrow” where one of the projects included in the show is Mother Dirt representing the skin biome and what might exist in a future home.

So what’s the next big thing in bacteria? We earnestly believe that relationship with the microbial world is one of the most important shifts in public health of our generation. For many, the microbiome and the importance of good bacteria in and on your body might be the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to many of the health issues we are still trying to solve. We don’t know what we don’t know, but many are rightfully excited at the prospect of exploring this field for all the potential it seems to hold. The public interest has helped push the gas pedal on the scientific progress. As we continue to make progress in new discoveries in the field, it will be increasingly important that the science remains rigorous and that we also temper expectations.

Keep asking questions, keep challenging the norm, and keep pushing for more, and together we’ll create a world where clean comes with healthy.


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