We appreciate that our work on the gut microbiome and the development of fecal microbiota transplantation was highlighted in the Feb. 18 Star Tribune (“Twin Cities researchers unlock ‘gut science’ cures,” front page). And we understand why the commercial potential of microbiota-based therapeutics would be emphasized by a business reporter for the paper. However, we wish to bring attention to important aspects of our work that were not mentioned.
Most of our work was funded through philanthropy and government grants. A key contributor was Achieving Cures Together, a nonprofit dedicated to finding remedies that already exist in nature but that need to be discovered and harnessed. We are also thankful for the support from the Hubbard Broadcasting Foundation and multiple individuals who simply wished to make a difference.
We are proud that we succeeded in helping almost 500 patients beat an infectious disease caused by Clostridium difficile, which is listed as the top urgent infectious threat in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In many of these cases, this disease likely would have been fatal. We are also very proud that the University of Minnesota Microbiota Therapeutics Program was able to provide these patients with therapeutic materials without charge.
Furthermore, our scientific work has helped to make therapeutic material available to tens of thousands of patients in the United States and the world, largely through nonprofit mechanisms.
We are also very thankful to the incredible volunteers who participate in the stool donor program at the university, and we are thankful to our patients who take part in research work that has provided key mechanistic insights for how fecal microbiota transplants work. This knowledge is critical for the development of next-generation therapeutic products to help future patients. This is a very young field with many potential applications.
It remains to be seen whether the influx of investor funding into this area will necessarily help the development of the field. There is no doubt that research could benefit greatly from such investment, and new treatments could emerge for many common ailments such as diabetes, cancer, autoimmunity and even autism.
However, we are concerned that the investments in the current for-profit pharmaceutical model are made exclusively on the basis of profit potential, rather than the need to help people. This model generally favors synthetic drugs and neglects research into remedies that may have weaker intellectual property, even when they are effective.
Our society is already crippled by the relentlessly rising costs of medical care. It is imperative that we take every opportunity to create new models of therapeutics development. This story is also very much about one such opportunity.
Alexander Khoruts is professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. Michael J. Sadowsky is Distinguished McKnight Professor in the U’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate and director of the BioTechnology Institute.