June 28, 2019

Philanthropy Accelerates Research into the Microbiome

Behind almost every discovery, there is a team. Breakthroughs grow out of scientific collaborations among extraordinary investigators. And another type of partnership can drive new knowledge: backing from generous supporters. Such is the case for Sarkis Mazmanian, the Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology and a Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator at Caltech.

Mazmanian investigates the trillions of bacteria that live in the human body. He has made significant advances in understanding these microorganisms, sometimes with counterintuitive results. His team, for example, was the first to demonstrate that specific bacteria in the digestive tract direct the development of the mammalian immune system and have an impact on autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis. More recently, Mazmanian’s laboratory discovered a functional link between gut bacteria and Parkinson’s disease.

His work may lead to treatments that improve the lives of patients with illnesses ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to neurological conditions such as anxiety, depression, and autism spectrum disorder. At Caltech, he has found the support to get bold new ideas off the ground.

The Soux Professorship

“A lot of the research questions we ask are unconventional,” Mazmanian says. “Having the resource of the Soux [rhymes with books] Professorship, we essentially have seed money to launch new projects and conduct proof-of-concept experiments in research areas that previously have not been investigated. Over the last few years, this support has catalyzed three or four projects that are now complete or near completion.”

The professorship was endowed with a gift from Caltech alumnus Luis B. Soux (BS ’57) and his wife, Nelly. According to Luis Soux, the choice to give was straightforward.

“We wanted to leave a legacy that would bind our names in perpetuity to an educational institution,” he says. “Caltech was the only school we considered because of my link during my undergraduate years, and the high level of research.”

Soux, who studied electrical engineering at the Institute, is cofounder and president emeritus of the engineering and construction firm Inelectra S.A., which was incorporated in 1968 and now is one of the largest such companies in Venezuela. In recognition of Soux’s mentorship of young engineers, Inelectra created a scholarship in his name to help employees pursue graduate degrees.

Through the Caltech professorship that bears the family name, Luis and Nelly Soux also are associated with science that breaks new ground in understanding the microbiome.

“There’s no way that we can do what we do without philanthropy. You have to have a platform that emboldens you to take that leap of faith into the unknown.”
- Sarkis Mazmanian

Turning Microbiology on Its Head

In an early discovery before he joined Caltech in 2006, Mazmanian showed that, contrary to what many might expect, some gut bacteria enhance the body’s natural defenses.

“It turns microbiology on its head,” Mazmanian says. “When we consider why we have an immune system, we normally think it’s to attack bacteria and control infections. Well, it turns out that there are many bacteria that actually improve the function of our immune system.”

More recently, Mazmanian’s research group has turned its attention to the connections between the microbiome and the brain. The team’s findings with laboratory models show that certain bacteria promote symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, while others directly contribute to autism-like behaviors.

 

The Mazmanian laboratory elucidates connections between gut bacteria, neurons, and neurological disorders.

Mazmanian and his colleagues further sharpened their focus on the products these bacteria produce and devised ways to halt that activity. Now, he aims to develop treatments through his two companies, one of which has a clinical trial under way to evaluate a therapy for symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.

According to Mazmanian, private philanthropy is an essential ingredient for this type of progress. Traditional sources of research funding often are too risk-averse to underwrite early-stage investigations, especially in little-studied areas of basic science.

READ MORE: Caltech Launches Merkin Institute for Translational Research

Platform for a Leap of Faith

Mazmanian’s research has benefited from funds associated with the Soux Professorship as well as from contributions provided by former Caltech Associates president Lynda Boone Fetter, her husband, Blaine, and the Boone family. Caltech trustee Richard Merkin has provided additional support through the Heritage Medical Research Institute, and Mazmanian also is an affiliated faculty member with the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech. These private gifts have made all the difference.

“There’s no way that we can do what we do without philanthropy,” Mazmanian says. “You have to have a platform that emboldens you to take that leap of faith into the unknown.”

Beyond its ability to advance new ideas and help donors achieve their philanthropic goals, the Soux Professorship has created an unexpected connection between Mazmanian and his supporters.

The Souxes are committed to promoting scientific progress overall, but it happens that they also have close experience with one of the diseases Mazmanian studies. Nelly Soux’s mother suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than 30 years before her death in 1981.

Luis Soux says: “The research carried out by Dr. Mazmanian fits like a glove to our intentions in establishing a professorship. The fact that, coincidentally, his research could lead to treatments for Parkinson’s disease has particularly excited us.”

This partnership, which unites a scientist who has the courage to ask unorthodox questions with benefactors who provide enduring support, could touch the lives of millions.