Number of the month: 100 trillion

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When researchers want to find out why a person is feeling unwell, they are increasingly focusing on one particular organ: the intestine. To be precise, it is the microorganisms residing in our gut that have aroused the interest of many scientists. It is estimated that roughly 100 trillion of them are to be found there – affecting not only our wellbeing but also our susceptibility to diseases.

A team of molecular biologists and bioinformaticians who previously worked at Wildau Technical University of Applied Sciences (only in German) have taken a closer look at the research conducted into gut flora, analysing no fewer than 6,000 studies. The findings gave them the business idea for their company a self-test for intestinal flora. "The gut is our number one organ when it comes to immune defence", says Dr Paul Hammer, one of the founders of the biotech company. "Which is why gut flora is so important." Hammer explains that any imbalance in the flora can lead to issues such as digestion problems, food intolerances or weight problems.

A business based on gut flora profiling

100 trillion

He and his colleagues study stool samples sent in by their customers to find out how many and which microbes they contain. They then use a database-supported analysis to interpret the gut flora profile. Their customers then discover among other things how well their intestine is able to process proteins and fats, whether they are likely to have a lactose intolerance and whether their gut flora is typically able to absorb a lot of calories from the food they eat. On the basis of the results, then recommends action the customers can take, in terms of diet for instance.

Funding for start-ups

The scientists were supported in establishing their company thanks to the EXIST business start-up grant awarded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. It pays a salary to three of the company’s founders for a one-year period. In addition, the funding allowed them to develop a prototype for their self-test. "The biggest advantage for us is that we are able to use the university’s lab", says bioinformatician Hammer. The entrepreneurs would not initially have been able to finance their own laboratory. Following his experience of the scheme, Hammer has the following advice for start-ups: "I can wholeheartedly recommend applying to the funding programme."

Researching the relationship between our gut and our wellbeing

Matthias Willmann, a microbiology professor at Tübingen University Hospital, is also exploring the relationship between human health and the gut microbiome – a collective term referring to all the microorganisms in our intestine. Willmann is the investigator on the "Tübiom" project (only in German), a study that will ultimately encompass 10,000 participants. Those taking part in the study send in a stool sample and provide information, for example about any diseases or medical conditions they have. The information is to be used to set up a reference database that will make it possible to better study the influence of specific factors on the intestinal microbiome. "For us microbiologists, this research has considerable significance for the future", says Willmann.

Possible application: early diagnosis of dangerous diseases

He hopes for example that the project will indicate whether there are correlations between the composition of the gut flora and bowel cancer. If so, it may prove possible to find new ways of detecting the disease at an early stage: at-risk patients with a particular intestinal microbiome could be recommended to undergo a colonoscopy more often. Together with his colleagues, Willmann is also investigating whether there is a relationship between gut flora and Alzheimer’s. Researchers already know that Parkinson’s sufferers have other bacteria in their gut than healthy people do.


EXIST business start-up grant

Through its EXIST business start-up grant, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy supports university graduates, scientists and students who are preparing to start their own business. They receive a monthly grant to cover their living expenses. Money for materials, equipment and coaching is also available. > Business Start-up Grant