Stanford launches major effort to harness the microbiome to treat disease

The Stanford Microbiome Therapies Initiative is backed by gifts from Marc and Lynne Benioff and Mark and Debra Leslie and is focused on developing and testing new disease therapies.

Michael Fischbach will lead the new Stanford Microbiome Therapies Initiative.
L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Stanford is launching a major new effort to harness the communities of microbes inhabiting our bodies — known as the microbiome — in developing new therapies for debilitating diseases.

The Stanford Microbiome Therapies Initiative (MITI), a joint initiative between Stanford ChEM-H and the Department of Bioengineering, is backed by a $10 million gift from Marc and Lynne Benioff and a $7 million gift from Mark and Debra Leslie.

The initiative has an ambitious goal of building and manipulating the microbiome to create new therapies and test them in early-stage human clinical trials. 

“Microbiome science has great potential for advancing our understanding and treatment of human disease,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD. “Stanford faculty are studying the microbes that inhabit our bodies in health and disease and developing platforms to generate new therapies. This body of work creates a foundation for the Stanford Microbiome Therapies Initiative, which will foster interdisciplinary collaborations across the university to spark discoveries that will benefit patients. I’m thankful to Marc and Lynne Benioff for seeing the potential of this promising field and making a generous gift to inspire other philanthropists, to the deans of the schools of Medicine and Engineering for their leadership in developing this new initiative, and to Mark and Debra Leslie for joining the Benioffs with their generous support.”

Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, said, “The vast number of microbial cells living inside and on the human body represent an uncharted but important frontier in health care. A greater understanding of the microbiome will allow us to harness this system to not just treat disease but to cure it altogether. We look forward to collaborating with the School of Engineering to realize the potential of these microbial communities, and we are grateful to Marc and Lynne Benioff for sharing our vision, and to Mark and Debra Leslie for extending their support.”

The Benioffs announced their lead gift to Stanford along with funding for the University of California-San Francisco to create the UCSF Benioff Center for Microbiome Medicine, which aims to radically rethink the role of the microbiome in early life and develop new interventions to prevent childhood diseases. These gifts further energize the Bay Area’s thriving microbiome research community and leverage the collaborative research in this realm already taking place at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a research institute affiliated with Stanford, UCSF and UC-Berkeley.

“Lynne and I are honored to support the cutting-edge research of two of the world’s leading universities as they pioneer a new era of microbiome research, science and therapies,” Marc Benioff said. “With a deeper understanding of the human microbiome, our generation can unlock new treatments that impact lives around the world.”

Collaborative team

MITI is led by Michael Fischbach, PhD, associate professor of bioengineering. MITI leverages Stanford’s extensive expertise in microbiome research, the strengths and proximity of Stanford’s schools of Medicine and Engineering, and the interdisciplinary endeavors of Stanford ChEM-H (Chemistry, Engineering and Medicine for Human Health).

Fischbach, who is also the Stanford MAC3 Paul and Mildred Berg Faculty Scholar and the Willard R. and Inez Kerr Bell Faculty Scholar in the School of Engineering, was recruited to Stanford in 2017 through a collaboration between Stanford ChEM-H and the Department of Bioengineering. He brought together a small group of Stanford faculty who were already working to better understand the microbiome. Fischbach proposed forming MITI (pronounced “mighty”) to focus that group’s efforts on manipulating microbial communities — both their composition and their genetics — and engineering those communities into therapies to address a range of diseases.

“This initiative is a perfect reflection of the ChEM-H vision of bringing together chemistry, engineering and medicine to revolutionize therapeutic development and to improve human health,” said Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, professor of chemistry and the Baker Family Co-Director of Stanford ChEM-H. “Since its inception, ChEM-H has had a strong interest in microbiome science and medicine, and we were thrilled to succeed, in partnership with the Department of Bioengineering, in recruiting Michael Fischbach to ChEM-H to lead a targeted, pioneering initiative in this area.” Bertozzi is also the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

The initiative draws on a culture at Stanford of working across disciplines to tackle major issues with imaginative solutions, said Kathryn Moler, PhD, vice provost and dean of research and the Sapp Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education. “This initiative couldn’t happen without the involvement and support of the deans of the schools of Medicine and Engineering and a willingness of faculty across campus to step outside their traditional domains and creatively work together to accelerate actionable discoveries and make a tangible impact in human health,” she said. “The team has an ambitious goal, and I’m thankful ChEM-H is able to provide a natural home for this initiative to flourish.”

Initial funding 

The lead gift from Marc and Lynne Benioff, and the funds provided by Mark and Debra Leslie, will enable the Stanford MITI team to initiate the work needed to construct, manipulate and characterize novel microbial therapies for a range of human diseases. Stanford will seek additional philanthropic support in order to bring promising new therapies to early-stage human clinical trials.

Marc Benioff is the chairman, co-chief executive officer and founder of Salesforce. Lynne Benioff serves on the boards of the UCSF Foundation, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals and several other organizations.

Mark Leslie is founder and managing general partner at Leslie Ventures, a private investment company, and a lecturer in management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Debra Leslie is a director of the Leslie Family Foundation, whose mission is to positively impact lives through economic development, health care and education, and to support Jewish community life. 

Focus on therapies

Much of the microbiome research currently underway focuses on sequencing and cataloging communities of microbes in our gut and on our skin — work that has led to discoveries about the role of the microbiome in diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, autoimmune disease and cancer. 

Fischbach said little has been done until now to precisely manipulate those communities or their genomes to explore possibilities for new treatments. Instead, current therapy utilizes human stool, which contains an undefined community of microbes with unknown modes of action and variable therapeutic outcomes.  

“This groundbreaking research at the intersection of engineering and medicine is precisely what we envisioned when we joined forces with Stanford ChEM-H to recruit Michael Fischbach,” said Jennifer Cochran, PhD, who is the Shriram Chair of the Department of Bioengineering. “Achieving this ambitious goal will draw on Stanford’s expertise in engineering novel solutions and experience translating research into new therapies to be tested in humans. I appreciate the support of the schools of Medicine and Engineering and Stanford ChEM-H for their valuable teamwork in forming this new initiative.”

The initiative will launch with six faculty from across engineering and medicine, plus executive and advisory committees to provide expert guidance, and is based in part on pioneering work from Alice Cheng, MD, a clinical instructor in gastroenterology at Stanford Medicine.



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