The scourge of metabolic syndrome: a special interview with Dr. Mark Haupt, MD

Metabolic syndrome is a condition comprising a combination of metabolic disorders such as obesity, dyslipidemia (imbalances in fatty acid levels), hyperglycemia (too much glucose in the blood), and hypertension. Metabolic syndrome affects more than 30% of US adults and having it increases the risk of other diseases such as type 2 diabetes (T2D), cardiovascular disease (CVD), and other metabolic disorders. The gut microbiota is capable of modulating the risk and severity of metabolic syndrome. Therefore, a means to alter the gut microbiota to manage metabolic syndrome remains a high priority within the R&D community.

In today’s blog post, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Mark Haupt, MD, Chief Medical Officer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) about his upcoming talk at the microbiome and probiotic conference in Miami. His talk will focus on the impacts the gut microbiota has on metabolic health. In particular, I took time to tap into his expertise on metabolic syndrome and learn how the R&D community can harness gut microbiota to alleviate the disease.

Q: What is the most pressing challenge for researchers when developing probiotics to tackle metabolic syndrome? How can researchers and the biotech industry best tackle this challenge?

A: Metabolic syndrome is a complex syndrome that will require a multi-disciplinary approach and solution to make an impact. There is significant heterogeneity within metabolic syndrome that may not permit a single solution to address the unique health challenges of those individuals who suffer from it and the related comorbidities. To that end, we need to first identify and understand the mechanisms underlying metabolic syndrome. Once we begin teasing apart these mechanisms, we can then build solutions around those concepts.

Q: In the airways of cystic fibrosis patients, I know that bacteria considered to be commensal can enhance worsened respiratory symptoms by inducing changes in pathogen behaviour. Does a similar problem exist with the microbes dwelling in the gut? If so, in what ways can probiotic R&D account for this issue?

A: As our technology advances, we are continuing to understand and uncover how dynamic and interactive the various microbiomes in the human body truly are. Each time we advance our understanding, we identify new questions and opportunities. Making it more challenging is the variability in the host response to this ever-changing ecosystem as well as the host inputs to the system.

In this regard, we need to take a comprehensive approach that allows us to evaluate the system or systems as a whole and take deep dives into very focused topics. After all, the composition of the gut microbiome can have profound effects on host responses. This, in turn, can drive liver and pancreatic steatosis – two debilitating features of metabolic syndrome. Adopting a comprehensive approach will require a collaborative academia-industry-government approach to continue to unravel the complexity of microbes and their role in health and disease.

Q: Studies in metabolism require a way to monitor dietary composition, but I imagine that the banana I ate yesterday is different from the banana I ate today. How much impact do subtle intra-food differences impact gut health? If these impacts are substantial, how does this impact the monitoring of nutrient intake when studying the relationship between dietary intake and gut microbiota?

A: The more granular we are concerning the data we ask study participants to collect the greater burden we place on them. This introduces the risk of non-compliance and incomplete data logs or prevents participants from enrolling in a trial in the first place. When considering the level of detail, we want to study intra-food differences, we really need to understand the purpose that dose specificity serves. What is the question we are trying to address? As you can imagine, unravelling intra-food differences can expand exponentially. How far back in that food product’s story do you want to go to evaluate its role in health? If we do collect very specific details, we have the burden to demonstrate the value and importance of doing so.

Q: What was the key takeaway you wanted your audience to have when they heard your talk? How did your intended audience react?

A: We have so much more to learn about the microbiome and its role in health and disease, particularly in complex syndromes. In conditions like metabolic syndrome, the microbiome may only be a part of ‘the problem’ or a part of the solution. The heterogeneity of conditions like metabolic syndrome requires multi-disciplinary approaches to improve health. A single solution or product is not likely to be successful. To enable that success, we need to collect data to better understand each individual and their health journey and how we can help them. I really appreciated the enthusiasm and dialogue that ensued from the talk and look forward to continuing the conversation.

Q: What was the best part of your attendance at this year’s conference?

A: Connecting with new collaborators and industry colleagues. I always appreciate the opportunity to learn from others and the forum provided a great venue and opportunity to achieve that. I look forward to hearing about all the exciting progress that will be made in coming year at next year’s conference and uncovering new ideas and challenges to address.


  • Paul Naphtali

    Paul Naphtali is the founder of GenoWrite, a life sciences communications company. He holds an MSc in Biology and went through the PhD program in Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, both at McMaster University. Before GenoWrite, he created Microbe Musings out of a passion for communicating microbiology research to diverse audiences around the globe and from all walks of life.

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