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Zeiss backs microbiome mapping startup

04 Jun 2020

Belgium-based Perseus Biomics said to have developed a novel optical method for analyzing gut flora.

German optics giant Zeiss says it has made an investment in a Belgian startup working on an optical method for mapping the human microbiome - the vast and complex range of microbes hosted by each individual.

The idea is to develop Perseus’ “MAP” platform for quantitative analysis of the microbiome, technology that promises to deliver a fast and affordable way to characterize gut flora and other elements of the microbiome that could enable highly personalized medicine and other benefits.

Abundance analysis
Based in Leuven, Perseus will gain access to Zeiss’ global presence and deep expertise in optics and photonics metrology. Gerrit Schulte, who heads up Zeiss Ventures, said in a release announcing the partnership:

“The microbiome is a field of strong research interest with the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of living systems. It has substantial implications for medicine, agriculture and other areas.”

Schulte added: “Abundance analysis of the microbiome is one key element of this research and Perseus’ innovative optical technology has the potential to enable it at a new level. The investment is a way of consistently implementing our strategy in the field of advanced sensor and data solutions.”

Perseus’ executive chairman Walid Hanna described the partnership as a “formidable opportunity” to accelerate the development and launch of the startup’s technology platform, and to establish it as a pioneer in the emerging field of microbiome abundance mapping.

“We have assembled a first-class scientific and research and development team [with] ambitions to revolutionize microbiome analysis - making it faster, more precise and more affordable, while opening the way for broad-reach personalized medicine,” Hanna added.

Anti-inflammatory action
According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is running the Human Microbiome Project, the microbiome is defined as the collection of all the microorganisms living in association with the human body.

That includes a variety of microorganisms including eukaryotes, archaea, bacteria and viruses. And with ten times more bacteria than human cells present in the average body alone, that represents a huge and complex colony to attempt to characterize.

Those microbes are not generally harmful, and in fact they are now known to be essential for maintaining health.

“For example, they produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders, and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes,” explains NIH.

“An ever-growing number of studies have demonstrated that changes in the composition of our microbiomes correlate with numerous disease states, raising the possibility that manipulation of these communities could be used to treat disease.”

Conditions including obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain autoimmune diseases (for example multiple sclerosis), and the inflammatory bowel disease Crohn’s have all been linked to individual microbiome deficiencies.

Fragmented sequencing
Recent advances in DNA sequencing technologies have created an entirely new field of research, called metagenomics, that allows comprehensive examination of microbial communities without the need for cultivation.

However, methods like shotgun sequencing and so-called “amplicon” approaches are still seen as deficient for the microbiome. According to some, assembly of the genomic material is time-consuming and often results in a highly fragmented sequence - meaning that important information on large-scale structural variation within the microbiome can be lost.

The “METAMAPPER” project, funded by the European Commission and carried out by a team at Leuven’s Catholic University led by Johan Hofkens, sought to overcome this by validating an optical mapping technology called “FLUOROCODE” as an alternative to the more conventional approaches.

“Through a head-to-head comparison with the state-of-the-art in metagenomic analysis, the data will serve as a key enabler for the transfer of the technology platform into a separate venture, working towards diagnostic applications and developing METAMAPPER-based microbiome screening as a routine medical tool,” stated the project abstract.

“The METAMAPPER microbiome readout technology is perfectly placed to be part of the evolution of microbiome analysis to clinical application.”

Whether that approach has any connection to Perseus Biomics is not clear - when contacted by optics.org, Zeiss said it was unable to provide any further information about the technology under development through its collaboration.

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