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    Meet Nicholas Chia, Ph.D. – pushing the envelope to uncover causes, new treatments for colorectal cancer

Nicholas Chia, Ph.D.

Space-age technologies, DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence – all tools for discovery that Nicholas Chia, Ph.D. and his team are using to push the envelope and improve care for complex diseases like colorectal cancer. They’re collaborating with scientists from NASA to uncover how the microbiome – the trillions of microbes in and on the body – triggers early stages of disease. Their goal is to develop better tools to prevent, screen and treat these complex conditions.

“We’re pushing the envelope by using the same technologies to understand the role of microbes in disease that NASA uses to explore life on Mars. At the same time, DNA sequencing has revolutionized our ability to identify different bacterial strains and their role in moving from a healthy to a disease state. Now artificial intelligence is enabling us to draw together and analyze large amounts of genomic, biological and ecological data to gain new insights,” says Dr. Chia.

Dr. Chia is the newly named Bernard and Edith Waterman co-director for the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine Microbiome Program.

Where does colorectal cancer begin?    

“In complex diseases like colorectal cancer, there aren’t just one or two players. In fact, multiple factors lead to the development of many subtypes of the disease. That’s why it is so important to take a holistic approach – we’re exploring the role of the environment, genetics and the microbiome in increasing risk for disease,” says Dr. Chia.

Through his work, Dr. Chia hopes to improve individualized treatments for colorectal cancer – the third most common cause of cancer-related deaths for men and women.

“Since joining Mayo Clinic, I have focused on how microbes interact with cells to cause events like toxicity, DNA damage and inflammation – all which can serve as triggers for changes that can lead to cancer,” says Dr. Chia.

Dr. Chia’s work will also shed light on possible links between the microbiome and many other diseases.

“We hope to understand how your microbial ecology gives rise to susceptibility to disease, how those pathogens may cause colorectal and other cancers, and how your microbiome modulates, activates or deactivates your immune system in important ways in diseases that range from autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis to allergies,” says Dr. Chia

Bridging the gap – from ecology and evolution to clinical care

After earning his undergraduate and doctorate degrees in physics, Dr. Chia pursued post-doctoral studies in ecology and microbiology

He explains his early interest in microbiome research by recounting a friendly argument he won with his research mentors.

“During my training, I saw how the theories we were using in the basic sciences could be applied to medicine. However, my research colleagues had doubts. As the National Institutes of Health launched the microbiome research initiative, my interest in the role of the microbiome in our health grew. Eventually, my research mentors agreed, recognizing how a systems biology approach could uncover complex factors driving disease,” says Dr. Chia.

Dr. Chia and his Mayo team’s recent collaboration with NASA Astrobiology Institute prove his point.

Their research revealed that kidney stones grow in dynamic ways similar to those observed in Mammoth Hot Springs rock formations at Yellowstone.

“This is an important discovery that could improve care for 1 in 10 Americans who suffer from kidney stones, a condition that can cause severe pain. Our next step is to examine the microbiome’s role in this process so that we can intervene and prevent stones from forming,” says Dr. Chia.

As microbiome research moves forward, Dr. Chia believes the team science approach will help push the envelope on discovery.

“We’re just beginning to unlock the mysteries of the microbiome. With our team members’ diverse perspectives and the application of new technologies, the road to discovery lies wide open.”

Read more about Dr. Chia’s research on kidney stones here.

Testing the bugs within to maintain health, detect and treat disease

Read a related article, highlighting Microbiome Program co-director Purna Kashyap, M.B.B.S. and his research. Learn how technologies developed in the microbiome lab are already improving clinical care for undiagnosed infections and beyond.

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