Ileana Soon

Our gut—and that microbiome of bacteria and microbes flourishing there—reveals a lot about our health. Researchers at UVA have advanced two new ways to tap into what our guts may be telling us.

New “deep-learning” image analysis technology, out of UVA’s schools of engineering and medicine and the Data Science Institute, uses image recognition technology similar to Google’s face recognition software to diagnose diseases associated with the undernutrition that plagues nearly 1 in 5 young children in middle- and low-income countries.

In minutes, the image analysis platform compares images from a patient’s intestines to images of known diseases—a process that would take hours for a trained human eye, explains Donald Brown, founding director of the Data Science Institute. Faster diagnosis means patients get medical care more quickly for these stunting and potentially life-threatening diseases, he says.

In another recent study done on mice, researchers at UVA’s Cancer Center found that an unhealthy gut could cause breast cancer to become much more invasive and advance through the body. Melanie Rutkowski, assistant professor in UVA’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology, and her team used antibiotics to disrupt the microbiomes and found that an unhealthy, inflamed gut led to aggressive breast cancer in the animals.

“We’re not suggesting that an unhealthy microbiome increases breast cancer risk; we’re suggesting that when you’re diagnosed, it might influence the risk for metastatic disease,” Rutkowski says.

“To ameliorate that, it’s not too late to adjust your microbiome [with healthy foods and exercise] when you’re being treated.”