In Brief
  • A once daily pill full of billions of designer bacteria has been developed to save your gut.
  • Synthetic bionics is a field that has the potential of transforming medicine from digestion to cancer treatment.

Custom Bacteria

Designer bacteria are organisms that have been genetically modified to include a new function to make it do something it does not do previously. Synlogic, a Massachusetts-based start-up, and its co-founder and MIT professor James Collins did this in 2000 when he modified an E. Coli bacteria to have a switch that makes it flip-flop into different states.

Synlogic is at it again when it announced a new pill that contains these modified organisms that could treat a rare metabolic disease that affects the stomach.

An Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. Credit: CDC
An Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. Credit: CDC

The bacteria used in the pill was E. Coli modified to soak up massive amounts of ammonia that forms from the nitrogen we get from ingesting protein. We normally expel the excess nitrogen by having the body turn it to urea and urinated out of the body. However, some people can’t process nitrogen fast enough, leading to ammonia levels that are toxic enough to kill the person. The modified bacteria rectifies this by soaking up the ammonia and turning it into arginine, a harmless amino acid. “A person would probably swallow a capsule once a day containing about 100 billion bacteria,” says J.C. Gutierrez, the company’s CEO.

The treatment is set to have its first clinical test by 2017.

Living Medicine

“Synthetic biotics,” as the company founders call it, are able to perform new and interesting functions that our body cannot normally do and this development could become an alternative to pills and injections.

Take for example the startup Ernest Pharmaceuticals, where it modified salmonella to try and fight cancer. The bacteria, which causes food poisoning was observed to form around tumors. The researchers could modify the bacteria to release anti-cancer drugs to the tumor that are deemed too toxic to be injected.

Swallowing bacteria may seem like a weird concept to some people but, as this development shows, it could lead to better, more targeted, ways of treating diseases.