Quite recently, I was contacted by a person who was thinking about investing in companies that seek to develop wellness products that could one day be used to treat human disease. He was interested to know what types of products that I believed would bring the most benefit to the greatest number of people. In today’s edition of Ask Eirik, I thought I’d briefly share my opinion on this issue.
Here’s the question I got from the investor:
The short version of our story is that we are putting together a venture capital fund that will be making investments in “human performance”-related start ups. Our senior partner is particularly interested in disrupting the current health care situation in the U.S., which as you know is dominated by Big Pharma.
Our plan is to target “wellness” products that show promise against the diseases of civilization; two areas that we are particularly interested in are exogenous ketone supplements and microbiome/probiotic advances.
My first question for you would be this: which areas of human health do you feel offer the greatest leverage? What would you pursue if you were a venture capitalist and looking to try to help startups that could really make a difference?
Thanks so much for any thoughts you care to share!
All the best,
As I’ve pointed out on here on Darwinian-Medicine.com in the past, most dietary supplements do more harm than good. “Functional foods” are also problematic. As for pharmaceuticals, some are obviously useful in clinical medicine; however, there’s no doubt that we – as a society – are overusing drugs. The primary problem with drugs is that they tend not to address the underlying causes of illness, they only suppress symptoms. Unfortunately, a drug-centric approach – supported and fueled by the pharmaceutical industry – dominates mainstream medicine.
In my recent article entitled Mismatch Resolution: The Future of Medicine I made the case that there are no quick fixes for chronic diseases such as acne vulgaris, heart disease, and colon cancer. These types of diseases develop as a result of complex genome-environment interactions. You can’t control these interactions with a pharmaceutical substance. In order to combat the diseases of civilization, we have to resolve the underlying mismatches that fuel their development. This can’t be achieved with the use of a single drug.
With that said, there’s one type of medical product that I believe may prove very useful in the treatment of many of the diseases of civilization. The medicine I’m talking about is microbiota capsules.
Capsules containing broad spectrums of microorganisms, as well as perhaps certain types of helminths, that are adapted to live in the human gut could help restore the diversity of the human microbiome. By itself, simply taking a couple of microbiota capsules is not going to be sufficient to equip a person with a healthy microbiota; however, when combined with a species-appropriate diet and lifestyle, it could bring about a major improvement in health.
At present, nutritionists, doctors, and other health professionals don’t have any products in their medical arsenal that they can use to repair the microbiotas of their patients. Some have the possibility of performing fecal microbiota transplants, but the problem with these procedures is that they are quite invasive and expensive. Capsules containing microbiota derived from human feces also exist; however, their use is restricted by various governmental regulations. They are also quite expensive.
Health practitioners can tell their patients to take probiotics, but as you know if you’re a regular reader of this site, the probiotics that are on the market today aren’t particularly effective when it comes to healing a sick gut.
It’s long past time that a simpler and better solution becomes available. Imagine how great it would be if frozen microbiota capsules – containing bacteria cultured in a lab – were available at the pharmacy. Doctors and other health professionals could simply prescribe those products to their patients.
Several large companies are already in the process of trying to develop advanced probiotics; however, there’s still a way to go before these types of products become available on the market. One problem that manufacturers face is that much of the bacteria that live in the human gut prefer an anaerobic environment. These microbes don’t do so well when they are exposed to oxygen.
Another obstacle is that it’s difficult to know exactly what types of microbes that will bring the greatest benefit with regards to the treatment of human disease. I think it’s a mistake to try to engineer bacteria with a special genotype that are believed to be optimal in the context of clinical medical treatment, which is what some microbiome companies are doing. I much prefer to adhere to an approach that is rooted in evolutionary science.
Instead of messing with things we don’t fully understand, I would argue that we should follow the rules of nature and try to produce products that are as “natural” as possible. What I mean by that is that a medical product that contains an ecosystem of bacteria derived from an environment such as the human gut and maintained under strict, anaerobic conditions is probably going to be greatly superior to a product that contains a handful of genetically engineered microbial strains.
There’s a lot more to be said about this issue; however, to keep my answer from getting very long I think I’ll wrap things up here.
To summarize: If I were to invest in a company that produces medicines and/or health products, I would choose one that is trying to develop products that are useful in the context of microbiome restoration. Microbiota capsules by no means replace a healthy diet and lifestyle; however, they may prove highly useful in the treatment of diseases characterized by gut dysbiosis. It’s difficult to overestimate the positive impact a widespread incorporation of microbiota-oriented therapies into clinical nutrition/medicine could have, seeing as microbiome dysfunction is at the root of a long range of diseases and health problems.
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