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How We Process Drugs May Depend On The Bacteria That Lives In Our Gut

National Institutes of Health
Artist rendering of intestinal villi and gut bacteria.

Microbes are the bacteria that live in our guts. Scientists are learning how they help us process medication.

Gut microbes are sort of like tiny hitchhikers.

Yale professor Andy Goodman says people walk around with a huge population of them. There's a whole intestinal ecosystem, and they’re nothing to worry about.

“They’re mostly bacteria. We carry these microbes for the entirety of our lives, and they’re much more different from one person to the next than our own genomes are.”

Goodman says scientists have known for a while that those microbes help metabolize drugs, a job often done by the liver. Goodman and his team wanted to figure out how they do it.

“They have a vast capacity to metabolize drugs…We found new activities we didn’t expect to see.”

The scientists looked at how gut microbes react to about 300 different drugs, and they found those microbes metabolized about two-thirds of them.

“We had no idea these activities were so widespread, but in some ways make sense because these bacteria have so many tools at their disposal to deal with molecules they encounter.”

Next, Goodman says scientists will try to figure out if a person’s gut microbes influence their responses to drugs. That could help doctors work side by side with our microbes to prescribe safer and more effective drugs.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.