This month we spoke with Dr Juan Pablo Molina Ortiz. Originally from Ecuador, Juan Pablo is in his final semester in the Master of Health Technology, where he is currently combining his passion for health and technology.
Please tell us a little about yourself
I am a 30 year old Medical Doctor from Ecuador with four years of clinical experience. I came to Australia a year and half ago to study a Master of Health Technology Innovation, a new Masters degree that combines units from the School of Public Health, Biomedical Engineering and IT. At the moment, I am in my last semester and finishing my research thesis at the Charles Perkins Centre, a research centre that relies on multidisciplinary collaboration to solve complex health dilemmas, mainly Chronic Diseases such as Obesity and Diabetes. Over the years health and technology have always been my two biggest passions and a couple of years after finishing medical school I set my mind on pursuing a career path where I could combine the amazing benefits of modern technology and my knowledge of health. Not after long I found out about this degree which brought me to this incredible country where you can find innovative ideas and people at every turn. For the last few years, my curiosity towards the gut microbiome has been growing exponentially as evidence emerged, linking it to several, not well-understood health alignments such as Diabetes, some types of cancer and even neurological disease. I see big potential in this field of research and it brings me great joy and excitement to be able to somehow contribute with tools that can further improve our understanding of it.
What is your research on?
I am using computer simulation to improve our understanding of how and why a particular microbial community assembles in the gut. This community collectively engages in a complex metabolic network, where it either competes for limited resources or cooperates and “trades” nutrients; varying widely from individual to individual.
We are relying on a Computer Science approach to understand the factors that determine what sort of community arises because it offers a flexibility that a biological system would not allow. For example, in any given simulation we can easily introduce different seed communities of microbes with different strategies of survival; we can also manipulate the host’s diet, and more importantly, we can measure and analyse any relevant phenomenon at any moment during a simulation in a way not possible in vivo or in vitro.
With this tool, we are representing microbes as explicit individual cells, that die and divide, that can perform complex metabolic processes such as nutrient digestion and internalisation, that interact with the host and its specific diet and when thousands of them are put together we notice patterns emerging at a community scale but the real powerful part is that we can establish why those patterns emerge, because we had to engineer the causal factors into the simulation.
At this current state, there is the option of including up to 92 groups of microorganisms, all with a singular combination of metabolic capabilities, but this number is expected to increase in the near future as we increase the complexity of the simulation.
What are the real-world consequences of your research?
We are only beginning to understand the influence of the gut microbiome on our overall health. We now know that each person’s GI microbiome is like a fingerprint, unique; it will experience modifications along the years influenced by the host habits, culture, interactions and geographic location. More importantly, it is a dynamic system; microorganisms grow and die, metabolites are rapidly produced and decomposed. Sadly, most of the approaches that we have now to evaluate it can be defined as a snap-shot in time, they provide ‘static’ information. We can determine the composition of it by analysing a faecal sample but the information that we get from it will only reveal the situation and composition of the microbial community on that particular point in time, but we cannot know what was happening right before or immediately after. Consequently, health professionals don’t have the adequate tools to identify the specific cause of a pathology, thus having to rely on therapies that can potentially alter the whole microbial community. Some examples of this are antibiotics, probiotics and faecal transplants. More targeted interventions with fewer collateral effects would be welcome.
With the help of in silico models, such as the one I am currently working on, we can provide a temporally continuous observation of a system in a way that real-world approaches cannot. Furthermore, we can assess the effect of adding or removing particular microbes from the environment with relative ease and determine why a community is behaving the way it is, and why that behaviour is detrimental or beneficial to the host’s wellbeing. With this knowledge, we can help engineer tailored treatments for a given individual, a concept known as personalised medicine.
What does digital health mean to you?
For me, digital health means breaking physical boundaries and bringing people together in a convenient, secure way with the aims of providing higher quality healthcare. With the aid of technology, people can now develop, offer and access health services in new innovative ways. What is more interesting is that limits are being broken every day at a speed never before seen reaching milestones earlier than expected.
We need to evolve with technology, learn about all the newly available tools that it has to offer in order to be able to focus all of its potential towards improving our society and tackling complex health issues. I believe that the best way to achieve this objective is through multidisciplinary collaboration, which enables us to develop new approaches and simplifies our mission of making the world a healthier place.
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Thank you to Juan Pablo for being our student feature this month!