- I tried an at-home gut-microbiome test kit made from the Silicon Valley startup uBiome.
- Founded in 2012, uBiome raised $US105 million from investors on the promise of exploring the microbiome, a ‘forgotten organ.’
- The startup is now in hot water on the heels of an FBI investigation and new revelations that cofounders and co-CEOs Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte misled the public about personal details.
- I took uBiome’s “Explorer” test last December. Here’s what I learned.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
If you’ve ever taken a probiotic, eaten yogurt, or added pickles to your sandwich, you’ve taken a step toward nourishing the vital community of life in your gut collectively known as your microbiome.
In recent years, scientists have described the microbiome as the “forgotten organ,” thanks to its emerging role in everything from mood to the risk of serious diseases.
Until last month, one startup – a Silicon Valley company called uBiome – appeared to be leading the way in pinning down precisely how the microbiome influences our health.
Since being founded in 2012, the startup raised $US105 million from investors like OS Fund. uBiome seemed well on its way to transitioning from a citizen science project to a key player on the life science venture scene.
Then at the end of April, the FBI raided uBiome’s San Francisco headquarters. It was part of a reported probe of uBiome’s billing practices. Last week, Business Insider published reported that cofounders and co-CEOs Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte also misled the public about personal details like Richman’s age and their relationship.
In December, I got the chance to try one of uBiome’s products – a microbiome testing kit called the “Explorer.”
My uBiome test results came with a significant surprise. Here’s what the experience was like.
This article was originally published in December 2018 and has been updated.
Jessica Richman founded uBiome as a citizen science project in 2012. Since then, her company had quietly been rising to prominence. Investors told Business Insider that uBiome’s data could be used to design new drugs for things like autoimmune diseases and cancer.
Richman created uBiome with crowdfunding nearly six years ago, in 2012, the same year that a huge government research initiative focused on the microbiome ended. The Human Microbiome Project’s purpose was to study the diverse communities of microbes living in and on our bodies and learn what roles they play in health and disease.
But Richman didn’t want to wait years to see those results turn into real products for people.
“I couldn’t miss the opportunity to be a part of the beginning of the microbiome revolution,” Richman told Y Combinator, a startup hub that backed uBiome, in 2014.
Last September, uBiome raised $US83 million in a funding round that transformed it into a key player on the life science venture scene. Hundreds of thousands of customers allegedly had their microbiomes sequenced by uBiome researchers, and the company hoped that data could offer the first concrete insights into how microbes affect our health.
“uBiome basically invented the category of the microbiome,” Bryan Johnson, the cofounder of investment firm OS Fund, told me in December. “What if we could understand this thing that is such a big component of what makes us who we are?”
uBiome collected microbiome samples from 250,000 customers, Richman told Business Insider in September. She aims to reach 1 million samples by 2019, she said.
I got a free uBiome test kit at an event organised by the Silicon Valley venture firm Rock Health. At $US89, the kit is the most basic version of the tests that uBiome offers. The others require a doctor’s sign off. That doctor approval is another part of uBiome’s process that is reportedly under investigation, Stat News reported.
Having experienced mild digestive issues for years, I was excited to learn more about how the bacteria in my gut were faring. Would I learn more about what was causing my occasional bloating, cramps, and indigestion? Or walk away from the test more confused than before?
Called the “Explorer,” my test included a set of clear instructions to take my gut sample. The process was not as easy as merely spitting in a tube.
Instead, I had to take a sample from a bowel movement. That involved using the bathroom, rolling one of the swabs included in the kit over my used toilet paper, and spinning the swab around in a small plastic tube.
Once the sampling was done, I sealed my tube, mailed it, and registered my kit on uBiome’s website.
Next, I answered some questions about my diet and lifestyle. These are designed, uBiome claimed, to help researchers assemble the right health recommendations for me based on my results.
One question asked about the foods I’d eaten in the past 24 hours. It included some common items thought to affect the makeup of your microbiome, such as red meat, fish, gluten (found in bread, pasta, and baked goods), artificial sweeteners (often found in diet soda, some toothpastes, and protein powders), dairy, and sugar.
As someone who generally eats anything (except red meat, which I avoid for environmental reasons), I found myself checking nearly all the boxes on some of the questions.
When I got my results via email several weeks later, one finding in particular shocked me.
The rest of my results seemed pretty normal though. I learned, for example, that I had a healthy portion of the bacteria that help us maintain a healthy weight.
“Research suggests that people who have higher levels of these bacteria are less likely to be overweight or obese,” my uBiome report read.
My sample indicated I had slightly higher-than-average levels of all these bacteria compared with others in the uBiome database – good news for me.
My report also said I had higher-than-average levels of beneficial, or probiotic, bacteria in my gut, such as the kinds found in yogurt and probiotic supplements.
Several years ago, I saw a gastroenterologist about my digestive symptoms. At her recommendation, I started taking a daily probiotic supplement and upped my intake of probiotic foods like yogurt, so this part of my uBiome report didn’t surprise me.
I also learned that I have a pretty diverse microbiome that’s rich in different kinds of healthy bacteria. This is a good indication that my gut is doing well overall.
But the last result shocked me. It said I had 0% of the bacteria that help our bodies break down gluten, the ingredient found in things like bread, baked goods, pasta, and even some sauces.
Concerned, I called Rusha Modi, a gastroenterologist at the University of Southern California, to help walk me through the findings.
I’d already been tested for celiac disease, a rare and painful genetic disorder that makes people intolerant to gluten, and come up negative. What did this mean?
One important thing to keep in mind about the uBiome results, Modi told me, is that they are comparative, meaning they look at how your gut microbes compare with the rest of the samples it has gotten.
Compared with the hundreds of thousands of other samples in uBiome’s database, my sample lacked all five strains of bacteria known to help digest gluten. It means that while I may not have celiac disease, I could experience negative side effects from eating gluten that other people don’t, such as bloating, gas, and cramps, he said.
But my results were limited by another significant factor as well, according to Modi. They only showcased what my gut looked like at a single point in time.
It would be like taking a photo of your garden and sending it to a friend to get their input on how well the garden was doing year-round, Modi said. Everything from seasons to the weather that day (did it rain? was there a drought?) could influence how the garden appeared in the picture.
To get a more complete picture of what was really going on in my gut, I’d need either multiple snapshots from many different points in time, or a full workup from a specialist, Modi said.
That’s an important limitation, Modi said. My test couldn’t be used for a diagnosis. But it could be part of a series of steps I take to learn more about my gut, he added.
uBiome’s “Explorer” test the only one of its current offerings that is not described as clinical. That is, it’s just meant for fun. uBiome portrays its other tests, which include kits called “SmartGut” and “SmartJane,” as clinical tools that insurance companies would cover. Those claims are currently under investigation.
The science behind these kinds of at-home microbiome tests is still very early, Modi said. For that reason, people who take them should know that they cannot be used to make a diagnosis yet, he said.However, if someone believes they might use one of the tests to get a specific answer about a problem they’re having, “then you’re probably going to be disappointed,” Modi said.
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