Dr. Marty Hewlett

The UNM-Taos report: Gut science at the Harwood

By Bill Knief

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Like a lot of people, I have always found science fascinating, but since high school I have had to admit that I’m just not very good at it. Nevertheless, the fascination remains.

I think it’s that kind of people which Dr. Marty Hewlett, Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, area coordinator for Health Sciences at UNM-Taos and one of the organizers of the Keystone Symposia on Cellular and Molecular Biology had in mind when he proposed that every year the Keystone conference in Taos should include a free public lecture by one of the scientists taking part in the conference. These are neither dumbed-down lectures for the masses nor ponderous litanies of incomprehensible scientific data. They are challenging explorations of cutting edge thought that make you stretch what you know farther into the world of possibility than you ever imagined.

“These are very high level scientific meetings where prominent researchers come to talk about their most current investigations.” Dr. Hewlett explained. “This year the topic of the public lecture will be the gut immune system presented by Dr. Lloyd Kasper, one of the co-organizers of this year’s meeting. Lloyd is a professor at Dartmouth and runs a lab funded by the MS Society and the National Institutes of Health, but because his father was a friend of Ernie Blake’s in the early years he has been coming here for a good part of his life, owns a home and plans to retire to Taos in the next couple of years.”

I met Dr. Kasper at Taos Cow in Arroyo Seco one morning this week. “There’s something about Taos; you either get it or you don’t,” he maintained. “I came out with my father 45 years ago and we were driving down the Ski Valley road and the sun came out and I said pull over, I’ve got to take pictures. I jumped out and it was glorious. Everything was white and sparkly and I said this is where I want to live. Years later my wife Judy and I had a chance to buy a property not half a mile from that spot. My wife, the dogs and the Macaws are already here full time.

“The reason we organized this symposium is that over the last couple of years there has been an explosion in immunology and a number of other disciplines in medicine that have begun to focus on the gut and the gut microbiome. The gut is the largest immune organ in the body, making up 80 percent of our immune cells. Within the gut itself there are approximately a hundred trillion bacteria, of which there are anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 different species. It turns out that the microbiome, which is the association and the interaction of the bacteria in the gut and the human body, plays a really critical role not only in controlling disease but perhaps in causing disease as well.

“It appears that these bacteria maintain balance in the immune system. We can’t live without them, and they can’t live without us. My guess is that over the coming decades perhaps we will be able to develop a new way of treating human disease by adjusting bacteria in our gut.

“At some point we’ll come to appreciate that in all likelihood what we’ve been eating and how we’ve been interacting with our environment has probably been changing these bacteria, and these changes have led to the rise of auto immune diseases and obesity. There are approximately 1,000 bacterial cells inside us for every one of our own cells, so if an alien were to land here and communicate with our gut flora,” Kasper said with a smile, “the alien would say, you guys have got a really good host. Because, basically, we’re the host.

“We have this universe inside us and we hardly know anything about it. It challenges our whole concept of life, raising the philosophical question, what controls us? We think we’re pretty independent, free living creatures, when in fact we carry around these forces that really are guiding us.”

Dr. Kasper will deliver his free public lecture titled The Gut, the Bugs and Our Bodies: The Role of Gut Commensal Bacteria and Human Disease on February 12 at 7:30 in the Arthur Bell Auditorium at the Harwood Museum on Ledoux Street. There will be no reserved seating, so it is best to arrive early.

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