Science & Technology

Following gut instinct to reimagine digestive health in the digital age

Digital technology has advanced more rapidly than any other innovation in human history. Many aspects of daily life have already shifted online, and with the advent of wearable fitness tracking technology, it is not hard to imagine a future where access to all types of health care is possible with the tap of a screen. 

On Oct. 14, Montreal Digital Spring, a non-profit organization whose primary goal is to boost digital intelligence, hosted a talk as part of MTL Connect 2020: Montreal Digital Week, their annual flagship event. Luca Cuccia, the co-founder and CEO of Phyla, a digital health company that merges artificial intelligence and microbiomic technology to improve gut health, gave a talk titled “Gut Health in the Clinical Space.” 

Gut health is directly related to achieving a balance of the gut microbiome, the bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract of humans. Changes in the gut microbiome caused by a number of factors such as genetics, diet, lifestyle, stress, and age can lead to metabolic and gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Both IBS and IBD are chronic diseases, meaning they are not curable but can instead be managed with long term care and therapy. 

According to Cuccia, the medical industry is not geared towards helping people with chronic diseases who need care on a day-to-day basis. Despite growing public interest in the gut microbiome, little has been done to update diagnosis and monitoring procedures and improve the treatment of diseases of the gut. 

“Everyone on the Phyla team either knows someone or is directly impacted by IBS [or] IBD. We understand how difficult it is for patients. It can take up to five years to be diagnosed, during which patients must endure severe symptoms such as bleeding and weight loss,” Cuccia wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.

For patients suffering from IBS and IBD, Phyla aims to track their health on a daily basis through two main methods: An application that tracks their disease and lifestyle metrics via self-evaluations, as well as a microbiome test kit shipped to their homes. Disease tracking allows Phyla’s algorithm to identify triggers that cause flare-ups and address problems as they arise, rather than when symptoms and complications become severe. 

“[Our] focus is diagnostics and disease monitoring […] to connect how a person is feeling and what they are saying to what’s actually going on in their body,” Cuccia said during his talk. 

The underlying cause for the same disease may differ in individuals. Coupled with existing research in the field, user data will allow Phyla’s algorithm to better understand the different causes of IBS and IBD through personalized medicine to ensure that the right treatment is being provided in a timely manner. 

“The research linking IBD and [the gut] microbiome still requires lots of work but is currently one of the most exhaustively researched applications of microbiome science, meaning that there is a large amount of data available in this field for us to train our algorithms,” Ryszard Kubinski, co-founder and CSO of Phyla, wrote in a message to the Tribune.

With large corporations like Facebook, Twitter, and even DNA testing companies such as  23andMe recently facing backlash for selling user information, privacy can be a huge concern with any technology that stores personal data. The team behind Phyla is currently constructing a secure data processing and storage framework. To optimize data processing while preserving user anonymity, they use a combination of differential privacy and homomorphic encryption, which allows manipulation of encrypted data without having to decrypt it first. 

Phyla is currently preparing for a beta release of their application. In the future, they plan to expand the tool to help patients suffering from other diseases linked to the gut microbiome, such as type 2 diabetes, liver cirrhosis, and metabolic syndrome.

“IBS and IBD are just the beginning [….] In the future, we hope to address as many of these [diseases] as we can,” Kubinski wrote.

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