Meet Your Microbes!

Jul 5, 2015

By Dr. David L. Suskind, M.D.

The Studio is an exhibit space located within Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health & Wellness that showcases local scientists’ advances in current research through a combination of digital media, graphics, objects and interactive displays and programs. Exhibits change twice a year. In the current exhibit, Meet Your Microbes!, explore the microscopic organisms that fill our world. These organisms are invisible to the human eye. Many of them are single celled. We call them microbes. They live all over you; in places like your mouth, nose, skin, lungs and intestines. Meet Dr. David L. Suskind, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Gastroenterology, Seattle Children’s Hospital, University of Washington, and his work that is featured in our newest exhibit.

Medicine combines the two things that I enjoy most: The study of science and the opportunity to help others. Medicine is rooted in science; it is the science of the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. Practicing science through medicine (or vice versa) allows me to ask questions. Asking questions is exceptionally rewarding, opening the door to endless possibilities and outcomes which is one of the most enjoyable human endeavors.

When I was a young boy, my family’s dinner table was always buys with conversation. It was loud and chaotic in a very exciting way. My contribution to the chatter was asking a multitude of questions: Why did something happen? How did something work? And what was the final result? Like many children, I asked so many rapid questions it sometimes drove my parents crazy. As I got older, I continued to ask questions: The whys and what ifs and how comes. Many times there weren’t answers readily available so I began my foray into research.

In the ninth grade, I wanted to know if vision was a learned behavior or an innate one. This was before the age of the internet, so I went to the library and read and read and read. None of the books I found gave me the answer I was looking for, so I thought investigating this question could develop into an interesting science project. I convinced by parents to purchase some newborn chicks for this project. Once the chicks were in my possession, I attempted to place miniature refractive glasses on these squirming little balls of yellow fluff. My hypothesis was that vision was a learned behavior and not an innate function of the brain. I was intent on getting my baby chicks to wear glasses to answer this burning question. I did not win the science fair (I don’t even think I got an honorable mention), nor did I get the chicks to wear the carefully crafted glasses I had made. It was by most people’s standards a complete failure. But I loved it and that was what was really important. This holds true for me today; I love research and the process of investigating even when a project I am running or question I am trying to answer doesn’t give me the results I am expecting.

Since my initial venture into research, my approach and scientific method has improved. I still ask questions. The question I am now focused on: Why do people develop inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)? IBD is a common immune-driven process that causes abdominal pain, diarrhea and weight loss. It is intriguing because the incidence of IBD has dramatically increased over the past 50 years.

This has led me and other researchers to look at the fecal microbiome, the 100 trillion bacteria within our bowels, as a likely culprit. As a physician, my goal is to make sure that my research has direct benefit to my patients. Therefore, I am studying ways to change the fecal microbiome through diet and fecal microbial transplant in order to decrease or stop inflammation within the bowels. The results of our studies have been promising with dietary therapy improving symptoms and decreasing inflammation in patients with IBD. Additionally, our initial studies with fecal microbial transplant have shown that changing the microbiota can have a positive effect for patients with Crohn’s disease, a type of IBD. As a researcher, I know that as one question is answered, many more arise. The ability to ask questions in order to help others continues to motivate me. My research continues.

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