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Following her gut instinct


How CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar Corinne Maurice found her way into a new field

Corinne Maurice had just earned a PhD in aquatic microbial biology, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with it. Then a mentor she was eager to work with suggested she apply her skills as a microbiologist to the human body, and her interest was sparked.

“The training that I had done was all about ecology and ecosystems, and if you suddenly considered the human body that way, it was just something that hadn’t been done. I just thought that was so exciting,” she says.

Maurice is a new CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar in the Humans & the Microbiome program. She is also entering her third year as a professor in McGill’s department of Microbiology and Immunology, settling into the lab she has been putting together for the past two years.

When Maurice transitioned to studying the human microbiome, the challenge of going into a new field that was still being defined appealed to her. At that time, few papers had been published on the topic and the ones that had didn’t address the questions Maurice knew she could. She thought looking at the human gut from a purely medical point of view might miss part of the story. Tackling the same challenges from her outsider’s perspective could provide some new insight.

Despite working with a whole range of new microbial communities, it was clear to Maurice that the experimental skills she had learnt and her way of approaching aquatic microbial communities was applicable to this new field.

As a postgrad new to the field Maurice used her outsider’s perspective to apply a technique pioneered for the analysis of aquatic microbial communities (fluorescence-activated cell sorting, or FACS) to studying the metabolic state of the gut microbiota en masse. The technique lets researchers sort different cells based on the cell’s light scattering and fluorescent characteristics. Using this approach, Maurice was able to identify metabolically active members of the gut microbiome and show the effect of antibiotics and other drugs on the gene expression of an individual species of bacteria within an intact microbial community.

FACS could prove useful as a tool to study the molecular underpinnings of what causes certain microbiome-related diseases characterized by differences in the metabolic activity of microbial communities. Understanding which microbes are metabolically active within the gut versus just large in number could be useful in anticipating an individual’s responses to drugs.

Maurice’s past research has also looked at the effect of diet on the microbiome and the effect that the use of certain therapeutic drugs can have. For example, she showed that certain chemical compounds – not only antibiotics, but also pain relievers and antihistamines – can have an effect on the physiology, structure, and gene expression of bacteria, as well as the overall community compositions of the active gut microbiome.

“Drugs are molecules with carbon, carbon is a food source for many bacteria… And if that’s the case, then what happens to that medication? Are you getting the right dosage?”

Maurice says that if we knew exactly what was happening in these microbiota-drug interactions we could modify our treatments, help buffer the side effects and even look to alternative treatments for infections. She warns, however, that these developments are still far off in the future.

Maurice prefers to change the way we frame questions around the microbiome. She says that we need to stop thinking about bacteria and viruses as things that want to kill us or make us sick. She points out that whole populations live healthy lives despite harbouring intestinal parasites.

One area Maurice is especially interested in is the use of bacteria-infecting viruses called phages to treat bacterial overgrowth. Since phages only infect bacteria they hold promise as a useful treatment for infections.

“If you’re sick typically there’s a group of bacteria, usually pathogens, that are making you sick. Yes, we can take an antibiotic, but when you’re doing that it’s as if you had a termite in your house and you just decided to bomb your house,” she says.

One area Maurice would also like to explore in the future is developing a better in vitro model for studying microbiome interactions. She wants to partner with McGill’s Medical Bioengineering lab as they develop a human “intestinal-tract-on-a-chip” that can simulate the environment of the human intestine.

Developing such a model is an example of the type of interdisciplinary projects that Maurice’s recent appointment as a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar could foster.

“CIFAR is allowing me to access opportunities I just wasn’t aware of and I’m suddenly managing to meet all these incredible people that are doing really relevant work. CIFAR is from that point of view breaking down the walls and I really like that. Everyone has their own experience to bring to the table. I really think that I won’t be able to answer the big questions I have without other people’s help,” she says.

CIFAR will also give Maurice more of an opportunity to engage in science outreach, particularly with children and young women, communities she is passionate about working with. As a child Maurice was curious and her parents supported that.

“It was always: if you’ve got questions, don’t be afraid to ask them and look for the answer,” she recalls. In reaching out and educating the next generation about science, Maurice wants to show children that adults don’t have all the answers, and that actually some adults, like herself, make a job out of having questions.

“I realize how extremely fortunate I was. I didn’t encounter any bias, I was never told that I couldn’t do something. I was fortunate to interact with a variety of different people. If I can give back a fraction of what I got I feel as though I would have made something.”

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