Biomedical science is rapidly coming to appreciate the dense microbial ecology of the human intestinal tract. Termed the gut flora or gut microbiome, this community of bacteria and other organisms outnumbers human cells in the average body many times over and is critical for healthy digestion. These bacteria communicate with human cells and have potential effects on human health well outside the gut, making them a popular target for biomedical research, but they are also poorly documented. Over 90% of species found in the human gut are impossible to culture in typical laboratory conditions, making them inaccessible to ordinary microbiological examination. Tom Jarvie of Shoreline Biome (now Intus Biosciences is hoping to change that, and the process of getting started has been a rather hilly ride.
Listen to the full interview with Tom Jarvie of Shoreline Biome (now Intus Biosciences)
It was next-generation sequencing that got Jarvie and his team thinking. “With the development of NextGen sequencing and the ability to just get a whole bunch of DNA sequences very cheaply and efficiently,” Jarvie explains, “that enabled people to say, ‘You know what? Let’s just go into…the human gut, let’s grab all the organisms in there, extract the DNA out and sequence it, and then we can start to get a good view of what’s in there.’” Unfortunately for those early bulk-sequencing pioneers, however, the gut microbiome turned out to be a lot more involved than that, and Jarvie’s early experiments helped reveal that getting DNA out of the gut flora required specialized cell-lysis steps, and the intensity of those steps would influence which bacteria were lysed and thus, which DNA could be sequenced. In particular, highly resistant bacteria required strong lysis reagents, which would also destroy the DNA of less resilient bacteria. This problem dramatically increased the workload of would-be sequencing labs and got Jarvie and his associates thinking: what if we could solve it as a biotechnology startup?
Shoreline Biome made gut flora research their niche. Their goal is to be a one-stop-shop for all microbiome-sequencing needs, including primers, lysis reagents, PCR reagents, and more, and thus take microbiome sequencing from a specialized field of its own into something that other scientists could pick up and perform whenever it became relevant to their work, including immunologists, clinicians, and even ecologists. Similar techniques applied to, say, studying soil bacteria as gut bacteria, and Jarvie saw no reason to restrict this firm to the intestines. Shoreline established itself as an outfit capable of distinguishing between strains of gut bacteria, including pathogenic versus benign strains of Escherichia coli, and made itself useful in hospital settings where tracking the origins of outbreaks can lead to new, better hygiene practices.
Jarvie got his company off the ground as quickly as he did, despite not licensing any inventions or scientific discoveries at its start, via clever use of his laboratory and university connections and quick thinking when rare opportunities appeared. The story of Shoreline Biome’s ascent from just another biotechnology startup to their current status as experts in their field is surprising enough that it is best experienced in its original form, in our podcast episode about Tom Jarvie and Shoreline Biome. In the meantime, Tom has parting words about his firm: “I am also proud that the company went through what we hope is a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic and all the challenges that that gave us, that we were able to ride that out, and I think what we’re really hoping for is that someday we can look back on it and say, wow, we made a positive impact on science, on human health, environmental health, and ultimately on society.”