Company: Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Job title: Associate Professor
Our basic research program develops new experimental and computational technologies to biologically organize and describe the dynamics of the tremendous genetic diversity in microbial communities. Microbes and viruses are first responders to alterations in the environment. Microbial responses to environmental changes include transcriptional, proliferative, and genomic changes little is known about how viruses respond to environmental perturbations in the context of interactions with their hosts. Furthermore, microbes and viruses exist in tight-knit networks that compete for, produce, and share resources. Microbial community structure/function relationships are poorly understood, which inhibits our ability to support or prevent particular functions. We develop new computational methods to 1) quantify genomic differences and interactions in microbial and viral populations and 2) characterize novel viruses. We recently reported in Nature a novel family of tailless viruses that are major unrecognized killers of marine viruses with the Polz lab at MIT (Kauffman, et al. 2017). These mysterious viruses are also found in the human microbiome, and we are in the process of characterizing their effects on microbial communities in the human body. If we understand how communities are organized and how they change over time under particular conditions, such as inflammation, we can better target microbes and genes to alter that condition.
Our translational research program provides patients and their doctors with actionable information about their microbiomes to improve health and treatment plans. For example, we recently discovered that microbiomes of different individuals have different capacities to activate irinotecan, an anti-cancer drug (Guthrie, et al, 2017). We linked this differential metabolism to specific microbial carbohydrate active enzymes. In mouse models, gut metabolism of irinotecan leads to adverse events, including severe diarrhea. We hypothesize that the life- threatening diarrhea that afflicts up to a quarter of metastatic colorectal cancer patients who take this drug might also be caused by microbial turnover, and are working with oncologists at Einstein/Montefiore to recruit and track patients receiving regimens that include irinotecan. Our goal is to provide patients with early warnings that they are likely high irinotecan metabolizers, thereby enabling prophylactic diarrheal treatment and closer monitoring by their treatment team. A tantalizing possibility here is to use a dietary carbon source to saturate the drug- interacting carbohydrate active enzymes before patients are given the drug, thereby reducing the number of patients who suspend treatment due to severe adverse events.