Nanotechnology provides new solutions for microbiome-based diagnostics and personalised medicine

By March 15, 2021ICN2

A review recently published in “Advanced Materials” by members of the Nanobioelectronics and Biosensors group at ICN2 (a BIST centre), led by ICREA Prof. Arben Merkoçi, presents the potential of nanotechnology in monitoring the human microbiome with biosensors. The studies can open new paths for diagnosing diseases such as cirrhosis, acute liver failure, and colorectal cancer, and for personalised medicine.

The study of the human microbiome, which is the ensemble of all microorganisms that live in the human body in symbiosis with it, is attracting increasing interest as it can provide new tools for diagnosing a number of diseases and become key to patient-tailored medicine. Monitoring the microbiome and its evolution over time, though, is not a trivial task and cheap, easy-to-use and sensitive devices to detect and distinguish its components would cause a big step forward in this field. Nanomaterials and nanotechnologies are already used in sensors for biomedical applications and are ideal candidates for solutions to meet these new needs.

The advantages nanotechnology can offer and the challenges involved in developing new diagnostic tools based on microbiome monitoring have been thoroughly presented in a review recently published in Advanced Materials and authored by members of the ICN2 Nanobioelectronics and Biosensors group, led by ICREA Prof. Arben Merkoçi. The work was done in collaboration with colleagues from the Institute for Bioengineering of Barcelona (IBEC, a BIST centre), the University of Paris-Saclay, and the Bioethics and Law Observatory of the Department of Medicine of the University of Barcelona. This publication is strictly related to the work carried out within the MICROB-PREDICT European project – its coordinator, Prof. Dr. MD Jonel Trebicka, is one of the authors of the paper – which aims to develop personalised strategies to prevent and treat decompensated cirrhosis and acute-on-chronic liver failure by investigating the human gut microbiome.

According to a recent study, the microbial cells present inside and on the human body are almost as abundant as human cells themselves. About 60% of this microbial material is located in the gut, and the other 40% can be found in the gastrointestinal tract, on the skin, in the genitals, and the oral cavity. The composition of these microorganisms’ population (also called microbiota) is very variable, as it evolves with time and is influenced by many environmental factors. Nevertheless, its accurate monitoring can provide crucial information about the health status of human organs and the possible presence of pathologies. Researchers have already associated alterations of the microbiome to various diseases and conditions, such as: colorectal cancer, coeliac disease, cirrhosis, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and allergies, among others.

In order to formulate a fast and reliable diagnosis based on the information provided by the human microbiome, it is necessary to probe it with precision, which implies discerning many different biomarkers and producing quantitative measurements of them (not just qualitative). Nanobiosensors are already applied in the medical field for diagnostics, in particular for point-of-care devices, which are easy to operate and can be brought to the patient. These sensors harness the excellent properties of various nanomaterials – primarily their large surface area, unique optical and electrical characteristics, easy tunability and functionalisation – to achieve better performances in the detection of diverse biomarkers.

The review analyses the advantages and drawbacks of the current diagnostic approaches based on nanotechnologies in reference to the human microbiome study, in particular lateral-flow assays, electrochemical sensors, cantilevers and plasmonic sensors. A perspective on the challenges is also provided, after identifying three main requirements for microbiome-based diagnostic tools: multiplexing, smartphone connectivity, and automation for sample processing. In addition, the authors report on the current and future diagnostics market and discuss the social acceptance of these devices, as well as the legal and societal issues that their application might entail.

Another review recently published in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology by researchers of the aforementioned MICROB-PREDICT project explains in more detail how components of the gut microbiome might be helpful biomarkers to predict the presence and development of cirrhosis and acute-on-chronic liver failure. These studies can also open the way to personalised medicine, with a therapy tailored for specific patients.

More information on the ICN2 website.