Rutgers professor explains new hypothesis on disease transmission

<p>Martin J. Blaser, Henry Rutgers chair of the human microbiome, and Maria Dominguez-Bello, Henry Rutgers professor of microbiome and health both published their theory earlier this month.</p>

Martin J. Blaser, Henry Rutgers chair of the human microbiome, and Maria Dominguez-Bello, Henry Rutgers professor of microbiome and health both published their theory earlier this month.


Two Rutgers University professors involved in a think tank proposed a new hypothesis stating diseases like cancer and diabetes can be transmitted between individuals through microbes that live on and in humans, according to a recent press release.

Maria Dominguez-Bello, Henry Rutgers professor of microbiome and health, and Martin J. Blaser, Henry Rutgers chair of the human microbiome, are both members of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), and play a role in CIFAR’s Humans and the Microbiome program, according to the release. 

Their team proposed its theory about disease transmission in an article in “Scienceearlier this month.

Dominguez-Bello said that while there is no science to back up the specifics of the idea yet, it is based on existing literature. 

“If you put the microbiome of a diseased mouse into another mouse, you accelerate and increase the risk of disease in the recipient mouse,” she said.

The microbiome is a part of the human body that is made up of microbes that have co-evolved with humans, Dominguez-Bello said.

“(The microbes) are human in that humans are their only habitat, but they are not human in the sense that they have different genomes,” she said. “They live in humans and they regulate human physiology.”

Dominguez-Bello said animals and plants all have their own microbiomes. Complex life forms have evolved in the presence of microbes and microbial interactions are critical for health and well-being. 

One example of microbiome transmission between humans is a fecal transplant in colitis cases. Fecal transplants, according to a 2019 editorial by Blaser in “The New England Journal of Medicine,” involve administering fecal matter from a healthy donor into an ill person. The process, he said, has been effective in treating patients with certain infections.

“You find your husband on the street basically, you are not genetically related. But your microbiomes become closer, that’s well known,” Dominguez-Bello said. 

“If you know that between husband and wife there is a lot of microbiota transmission, does it imply that if a person with colitis marries a person that is very healthy, they will improve their disease? Or could that person transmit their pro-inflammatory microbiota to the healthy person?”

The hypothesis could also have implications for therapies or issues such as obesity. Like the human genome, microbes can be manipulated, Dominguez-Bello said.

“If you take germ-free mice, separate them into two groups and give one group the microbiota of obese mice and the other group the microbiota of lean mice, then the same group of mice divided into two groups show two different phenotypes. The ones that receive microbiota from obese mice gain more weight than ones who don’t. The same with Type 1 diabetes,” she said.

Dominguez-Bello said the article is meant to open up a dialogue on the potential positive or negative effects of microbiota transmission between humans and encourage new research. Her team at CIFAR thinks research on this issue is important for both healthy and diseased individuals. 

“This is a perspective paper. It’s not a facts paper,” she said. “Nothing has been done scientifically already. We are opening the question so that by publishing it, somebody may be interested in studying it or some foundation may see it as important and open a call for funding.”

Dominguez-Bello said CIFAR is an opportunity for professionals across disciplines to work together to study societal problems and areas for further research. 

“We just go there to talk about anything that occurs to us,” she said. “It’s important because there aren’t many opportunities to sit there and listen to sociologists and anthropologists and historians and philosophers and ask questions about the microbiome.”


Editor's Note: A previous version of this article referred to "obese mice" as "dead mice" and to "lean mice" as "live mice." 


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