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The gut microbiome and the Kaiser Permanente Research Bank

Over the last two years, the blood and saliva samples provided by Kaiser Permanente (KP) Research Bank participants have been genotyped. Now that this work is complete, we will be adding gut microbiome information to the Research Bank.

As a KP member, you might know that “FIT” stands for “fecal immunochemical test.” It is an important colorectal cancer screening tool. Every year, KP members ages 45 to 75 receive the FIT test in the mail. Members complete the “poop test” at home and mail it back to the lab. A week after the screening has been completed by the lab, the test kit is discarded. The leftover sample in these test kits contains microbiome information that the KP Research Bank can use as a resource for studying how the microbiome affects health.

The National Institutes of Health and other scientific institutions have demonstrated that FIT tests can be used for gut microbiome research. Because the KP Research Bank’s resource already has genotypic, medical, and health survey data that researchers use to understand what affects health and disease, adding microbiome data will make the resource even more valuable.

What is the microbiome?

The microbiome is a “community” of microorganisms that includes bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other types of microorganisms, often called microbes. Trillions of these microbes exist mainly inside our intestines and on our skin. Most of the microbes in our intestines are found in a “pocket” of the large intestine called the cecum, and they are referred to as the gut microbiome.

Microbiome by the numbers

We each have trillions of microbes in our body. So, are these microbes our friends or our foes? The short answer to this question is both. For example, the healthy human microbiome helps with digestion and generates important nutrients such as vitamins and other metabolites that are beneficial to us. However, if these same harmless — or even helpful — microbes live outside of the gut, for example in the bloodstream, they can be dangerous and cause infections in people who are immunocompromised.

Since there are trillions of microbes both healthful and harmful in our digestive system, how are we protected? The first layer of protection is the intestinal mucus produced by our bodies. Because the intestinal mucus is the crucial layer between our bodies and microbes, its breakdown can lead to inflammation and infection.

Using discarded FIT tests, KP Research Bank scientists will have an opportunity to study the microbiome and how it is important to our well-being. Understanding this will greatly improve scientists’ and physicians’ abilities to create innovative ways to prevent and treat disease. As this work develops, we will keep you informed of its progress!

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