The Next Frontier in Medicine Lies in Our Gut

Does the solution to solving diseases in the future currently live inside our gut? The gut microbiome represents an exciting and promising opportunity to drive disruptive change in the future of the health care industry. Made up of trillions of bacteria that support overall human health, our gut microbiome represents the new frontier in medicine which, once unlocked, has the potential to treat or cure endless health issues. In fact, I believe it holds promise akin to how immunotherapy represents new hope in treating cancer.

Experts suggest the microbiome affects our bodies from the time we’re born, exerting a powerful influence on key biological processes such as digestion, the immune system and the central nervous system, and consequently, can also contribute to disease. Further, research has shown that an imbalance of unhealthy and healthy microbes inside the gut may contribute to weight gain, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and other disorders associated with many health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

Is modern medicine about finding the underlying cause of disease and treating it at the source within the gut? I think so. To gain further insights, I attended the North American Microbiome Congress in February, which featured many of the world’s leading researchers and thought leaders in the microbiome space. Among some of the highlights, researchers discussed the emerging connection between the gut microbiome and overall health. Notably, there were two key insights that I found particularly interesting.

First, the growth in microbiome-related research will come from areas where current treatments fall short, or from those diseases where no treatments exist, and therefore provide even more opportunity for research in an uncrowded market with unmet needs.

Second, with a focus on safety and efficacy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been very supportive of pharmaceutical companies in the development of microbiome therapies in clinical trials, making studying microbiomes in various patient populations even more feasible.
What’s our opportunity? Current statistics around obesity, diabetes and IBD demonstrate significant unmet needs, and in some cases, global epidemics that are quickly growing out of control, while costing the health care system billions of dollars. Consider that 38 percent of U.S. adults are obese. Diabetes affects 30 million people and kills someone every six seconds. As of 2015, there were 3.1 million diagnosed cases of IBD in the U.S.

When you look further, these diseases place a serious economic burden on our health care system and communities. Trust for America’s Health determined that the U.S. could save upwards of $600 billion over the next 20 years if we reduced obesity rates by only 5 percent. Further, the American Journal of Managed Care reports estimates of direct and indirect costs of IBD ranging between $14.6 and $31.6 billion in 2014.

What if we could harness the gut microbiome to drastically reduce, or even reverse, these statistics – for the better? Admittedly, while there’s a great deal of promise within the gut microbiome, there remains a vast expanse to explore, considering that research within the gut only recently started to gain attention, excitement and momentum within the scientific communities. The bottom line is that more research is needed.

Health care business leaders like myself have an opportunity – and obligation – to apply the necessary resources and expertise to unlock the mysteries of the microbiome and turn our knowledge into novel therapies that improve outcomes and reduce costs.

Can we unlock the microbiome and change the face of health care going forward? My “gut” instinct says yes, and we are determined to find out.

Best Hospitals Honor Roll

Rank Hospital Name Location
Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN
Cleveland Clinic Cleveland, OH
Johns Hopkins Hospital Baltimore, MD
Massachusetts General Hospital Boston, MA
UCSF Medical Center San Francisco, CA
University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers Ann Arbor, MI
UCLA Medical Center Los Angeles, CA
New York-Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia and Cornell New York, NY
Stanford Health Care-Stanford Hospital Stanford, CA
Hospitals of the University of Pennsylvania-Penn Presbyterian Philadelphia, PA

Hospitals Ranking information as of March 14th, 2018

Mark McKenna is Senior Vice President and General Manager of Salix Pharmaceuticals, a leading specialty company focused on gastroenterological solutions.


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