Podcast #16 with Jessica Richman of uBiome

I got to interview Jessica Richman of uBiome, an IndieGoGo campaign you can still get in on. They are bringing genetic testing of your microbiome to the masses for an unprecedented level of access to our personal data.

This is the first podcast to be edited and remastered professionally using Fiverr as well as fully transcribed using Fiverr.

ARI: Hello productivity overachievers, this is Ari Meisel, welcome to the podcast.  Today I got to have coffee with Laura from the website 50by25.com.  She wrote a guest post for the blog a few days back.  Laura is the youngest woman to run all 50 state marathons and she did it by the age of 25.  Now, one marathon is impressive but fifty is mind boggling and she it in less than 2 years, which is amazing in itself but what’s really mind boggling is that she did this while having a full time job as a management consultant.  Traveling all the time and managing to maintain a social life and enjoy herself.  Most people would consider a marathon a little bit torturous but Laura thinks it fun.  So it was really cool catching up with her and hearing how she truly finds a balance between work and life and play and work to be more specific.  She basically decided that, while it was a goal of hers to do all 50 state marathons, it was also a goal of hers to enjoy her life.  So, she’s gotten comments from people that she could’ve trained harder and maybe run faster or gotten better times or what’s the next thing she is gonna do.  But, those weren’t her goals.  Her goal was to do something amazing while living her life.  So, another shout out to Laura for doing this amazing feat and if you haven’t read it yet, please check out her guest post on the blog that went up about a week ago.  Really excited about the interview that I have today which is with Jessica Richmond of ubiome.  An indigogo campaign that’s currently blowing away its targets, it’s got almost three times the amount of funding that they’re looking for and they just extended the campaign for another 18 days.  So I hope you enjoy the interview with Jessica.

ARI: Welcome to the podcast.  Today we are talking with Jessica Richmond of ubiome.  Hi, Jessica.

JESSICA: Hi, Ari.  Good to talk with you.

ARI: Yeah, thanks for taking the time.  So first of all you start us off and tell them what ubiome is.

JESSICA: Sure, ubiome is a citizen’s science platform for learning about the microbiome.  So what we do is we sequence the human microbiome, which first of all I should back up and say that microbiome are all the bacteria that live on all of us.  There are ten times as many bacteria in our bacterial cells in our body as do our human cells.  So we are covered in bacterial cells and these bacteria are indicators of many things about our health.  So what ubiome does is it lets you submit samples and sequence the bacteria.  You can see what’s on and in your body, and then to ask and answer questions about the data so you can learn more about your health.

ARI: And one of the things this will innovate, well I should point out everyone that currently ubiome is doing an indigogo campaign to bring what has previously been a very expensive and limited availability kind of offering to the masses, right?

JESSICA: Yeah, that’s exactly right.  So, this is cutting knit science that comes out the microbiome lab at UCSS, University of California San Francisco and until we launched this project, there was no way the average person or even the average doctor, nutritionist, or gastroenterologist have access to these kind of tests cause they are mostly used for research science.  So this is a way for the public to get access directly to really cutting knit science for the first time.  Frank he is our indigogo hero, which is indigogo.com/ubiome

ARI: Now, what, I mean, since this information has not really been previously that accessible, I'm assuming that you are going to greatly benefit from having a lot of people submitting a lot of data at the same time?

JESSICA: Yeah, there’s a few things about that.  The first thing is that yes, we’d love to put together the biggest, largest microbiome database in the world and that would be amazing.  And the more people we have the more we can tell about things that are, prep some aware in the population or things that specific cohorts are interested in like talking about specific gut disorders.  That if people that have them, you know, all contribute to the project and then we can ask specific questions to help us pinpoint something about this specific condition that can make a big difference. But I do want to say that there are already many studies about the human microbiome so it hasn’t been accessible to the general public but the NIH did a 5 year 173 million dollar human microbiome project to work with the biomes that help the individuals.  So it’s very much mainstream.  And there have been hundreds of studies about the microbiome in just about everything.  The microbiome and so the obvious diabetes, allergies, bowel conditions of various kinds but also anxiety, depression, and autism, antibiotics, pre-neonatal development . . . all these sorts of things.

ARI: So, that was going to be my next question, the current information.  So that was a really good list and the autism and the anxiety is an interesting one because of the pretty much proven concept of the gut-brain connection.  But what about things like environmental factors or you mention allergies but I'm interested in environmental factors like you’re not going to do a heavy metal sort of like you would do with your blood but are you gonna give that kind of information?

JESSICA: What we’re getting with the kind of sequencing that we are doing is sort of catalog of the microbes that are in your gut.  We’re kind of looking at the bacteria in your gut.  We’re not gonna catch the worms, protozoa’s, other things that don’t use the specific legion of bacterial DNA that we are gonna be using.  And we won’t be testing for heavy metals or certain other things.  But one thing that will be very interesting in this sort of age of quantified cells, personalized medicine, big data is to combine what we’re doing with personal deunomics something like 23 and me with your blood test, with medical records, with quantified self-tracking of your diet.  There’s so many different things that you can look at that will add to this microbiome profile which is only one piece of this huge set of data on top of an individual but might be the key to unlocking certain really complicated disorders that are hard to piece out the causality about.

ARI: Okay, so the quantified is obviously something that is particularly interesting to me having dealt with quantum’s and years and years in quantified cell overcome it but just the word tracking suggest some time aspect to it.  With your end you can tell things in the last 24 hours.  Pretty much with hair you can go back months.  What time window are we going to see with the human microbiome?

JESSICA: So there have been studies done that have a variety of different time points depending what application they were looking at.  So, for example there’s a study for antibiotics where they looked at you take antibiotics before after you taken them a month after, 6 months after, even 2 years after and show the difference up to 2 years later and know that someone had taken antibiotics.  But then there will be another study that’s looking at something entirely different that we use a different time period.  So I think it really depends on the specific application and that’s the only thing left to do is to be able to sequence people into the time and see what is the right time period for people to test the microbiome under particular circumstances.

ARI: Okay, yeah, that’s interesting.  For instance when you do a blood test you know you’re supposed to fast 12 hours for instance so that would be interesting to see what that baseline would become as far as anything for your microbiome which leads to my next question.  What are the sites?

JESSICA: Oh yeah, sure.  So we sampled five sites out of the six for the human microbiome project of the gut, nose, mouth, ear and genitals.  I'm sure glad that’s five.  The gut people like to laugh cause it’s like what exactly is the gut site.  And the gut site is poop.  Yes.  So, what you will be doing is sampling poop.

ARI: Sorry, you lost it after that.

JESSICA: Sorry.  Can you hear me okay in here?

ARI: Absolutely.

JESSICA: Okay, so yeah.  I’ll start again I guess.  So the five sites are the gut, nose, mouth, ears and genitals.  So a lot of people ask what the gut site is and the gut site is poop.  So you take little bit, take our swab in our swabbing kit that we send you and you swab with it onto some of the toilet paper and then you submit it to us.  So even the poop is not as gross, it’s not invasive, it’s definitely something that anyone could do and won’t be terribly grossed out to do.

ARI: (laughs)

JESSICA: We hope not.  (laughs)  There’s no entry basically.

ARI: Exactly.  Without going into too much detail, and we just sort of touched on this but the baseline, but is the result that you get going to be affected possibly by the meal that a person has had before they did sample?  For example, what if they eat something spicy that kills some of the bacteria.

JESSICA: Maybe, that’s an interesting question.  So we are sending an extensive health survey with the sampling kit and it’s going to have questions in it about your health history.  There are self-reports of medical conditions you've been diagnosed with and we’ll also ask what kind of diet you are on.  We may ask you to do some food tracking right before the sample.  That way, we do want to know things about this.  This is the interesting correlation between people who, for example, have a certain microbiome profile and they eat in the past 24 hours and here’s what the microbiome looks like and they have some medical condition, there’s a few things correlated.  It could be very interesting.

ARI: Since this is going to be available to the masses and some people are citizen scientists and some people maybe just think it’s kind of cool, what kind of data are people going to get?  What information or the actual steps that you might recommend or they’ll have to figure out at some point?

JESSICA: Oh, you mean in terms of giving them advice?  Giving people advice afterwards?

ARI: Well for instance, it’s something in your report that saying you have a high level of this particular bacteria and the recommendation would be to take this?

JESSICA: A few things on this.  The first thing is we think of everyone as a scientist.  We don’t want this to be the kind of thing where only you have to be a certain special kind of person to be able to use this design.  So anyone who’s interested in their health, thinks about their body, thinks about science, and wants to ask/answer questions on issues in science.  So we definitely want to include everyone, not just people’s samples, not just people’s money but we want their thoughts or questions they may have about the microbiome, how to ask what questions they want answered or how they think about the data.  We definitely want people to be involved more than just like there’s a sample, here’s some money.  The other thing is that this is not an FDA approved diagnostic test.  This is not, we can’t make treatment recommendations.  This is very more informational and that’s a regular line to walk and it’s also a classical line because microbiome science is really new.  We don’t want to make claims that we don’t have any basis for.  But what we will be saying is we’re going to say well here’s the new gut and here they are here’s how you correlate with other people and their sample.  And this is what you were saying earlier about having the biggest sample.  The more people who are in it the more meaningful that is.  And then here is how you correlate with existing studies about the microbiome.  We’re giving people a lot of information that they need to think about or give to the health care professional; they can sort of adjust their own diet and exercise probiotics, and all those sorts of things.  At this early stage with this pilot, we can’t say things like you should clearly do this because we know everything about you.

ARI: Okay, that’s very interesting to me.  It definitely is inaudible in some ways but is it going to require you getting a lot of the data to find out sort of reference values?  I mean are there really, are there even reference values for particular . . .

JESSICA: Yeah.  So that’s why we are building upon what was done by the human microbiome project which was really a stunning achievement.  I mean it was a huge project to look microbial diversity in healthy individuals and provide a certain value for that.  That’s why they did it and that’s why they spent so much money on it, they sort of pioneered and laid the ground work for an entire scientific field by doing that.  The human microbiome project established reference values for certain things and we’re sort of building upon their techniques to make sure we can use, we can build on that and use that data to figure out larger set data set to make sure we’re doing them correctly.

ARI: Okay, so this is just . . . I'm a bagger obviously for this campaign and I cannot wait to get my kit.  It’s probably going to be one of the least invasive tests that I’ve had to go through on myself.

JESSICA: (laughs)

ARI: What kind of different information are you going to get from those five different sites?  I'm sorry, what was the sixth that you don’t include?

JESSICA: Uh, sixth is the surface of the skin because there’s a lot factors, things affect that and we want to make sure people sample in the same place every time and we didn’t think it would be as valuable to do.  So we wanted to make sure we had the ones that we thought we could control the best given that we’ll be opening this up to the public.  Control the sampling technique, you know, make sure everyone is doing it the same way.

ARI: Right, so the only really other question is, uh, is the other information from the five different sites extremely different or does the difference in them tell you something in itself or how does that work?

JESSICA: Um, that’s definitely an interesting question.  So, if you think about it, if we think about ourselves as the habitat for other creatures to live in.  So like we’re a tree that birds live in and vines grow on and moss grows on the base of it and we’re just sort of this environment that these things live in.  And you think about how different it would be to be a bacteria that lives on your nostrils versus the bacteria that lives up your nose.  Two very different places, one is more moist and one has more breeze going through it.  So if you think about it, if you were a bacteria what kind of bacteria would you have to be to live in different places?  So if you think of the five sampling sites, they’re all very different from each other.  There not, I mean it’s an interesting question.  I don’t actually know about correlations between the different sites.  That might just be my not having read those particular studies.  I have read specific things about each of the sites but not a lot.  But I do know that there are have been studies done about all the, independently, each of the five sites that relates to different types of microbiomes in different places.  It would be an interesting question how they correlate to each other.

ARI: Just be curious.  For instance, if their blood test shows that are liver cells and lymph nodes somewhere in there maybe suggest there’s sclerosis that’s causing cells to flop off.

JESSICA: Right.

ARI: So if you find nasal bacteria somewhere it shouldn’t be, then you know that’ll be very interesting.

JESSICA: Interesting to hear that. So there’s a few things that are kind of interesting about that one.  One of them is there is a certain subset of people that had their oral microbiome samples had fecal microbiome patterns in their mouth.  And we know exactly what that means, like, why is that there?  But that could be something very indicative.  Another that I happen to know of is I know that one of the indicators of gastric cancer is if you have eachpolonum which is normally in the stomach in the bowel microbiome, which kind of makes sense in some way.  You know there’s sort of a downstream effect from the stomach but, yeah, it’s a really good question.  I wonder if the interaction between a person’s mouth would be pretty obvious.  I don’t know, maybe some things to find out.

ARI: Well, I just want to say I can’t wait to see the results that you guys get from all this data.  The last question that I want to ask you, which is my final question to every person I interview for this show is what are your top three personal productivity tips?

JESSICA: This is such a good question.  So, something that has changed my life recently is noise canceling headphones, the big, clunky, over the ear noise cancelling headphones.  I resisted buying them cause they’re expensive and I thought they looked so dorky but they’ve changed my life.  I can focus so much better while working in all sorts of different environments and it’s really increased productivity a lot.  So if you’re hesitant to spend the money and carry around this huge set of headphones, you should definitely give it a shot.  It really, really changed things for me.  The second thing is I really like . . . I don’t know if you read Cal Newport’s blog, he was a grad student at MIT and he’s now at Hopkins I think, he’s a computer science professor somewhere in the DC area or the DC or Maryland area, and he’s the concept of adventure studying where you go off to some place interesting and study.  I like to do that with working.  Go to a café, go to a library, or just somewhere interesting that’s not your normal place to work, I find that really helps you be more creative.  The third one is something that I just started doing after this campaign with all the emails you have to keep track of.  It’s boomerang, which is an app – it’s a plugin – on Firefox and Chrome for managing your email.  They’ll basically send an email back to you in a couple of days if you don’t happen to know the answer yet.  That way you don’t just send out the email and like try to remember did that guy ever get back to me or did I ever get back to them?  And it just sort of solves the problem and pops back up in your inbox again.  So those three things really made me much more productive.

ARI: Well, those are awesome.  I always love asking types of people.  I get people from different walks of life.  The things that they use always seem to fascinate me.

JESSICA: I was totally different, I imagine.

ARI: Yes.  Very, very different.  Thank you for sharing that and thank you so much for your time talking about this awesome project.

JESSICA: Yeah, thank you.

ARI: Yeah, so again the URL for everybody is indigogo.com/ubiome and that’s U B I O M E, right?

JESSICA: Yes, that’s exactly right.  Thank you so much for having me on less doing podcast.

ARI: Okay, great, thanks.