Spotlight on Neelendu Dey

Learning the secrets of gut microbes to improve lives

Neelendu Dey, microbiome researcher and gastroenterologist

When he set off on his career as a physician-researcher, Dr. Neelendu “Neel” Dey thought he knew what he wanted to do: study the immunology of the liver. Fascinating stuff, it was. The puzzles that complex system presented stimulated his brain.

Then, life happened. His heart got tangled up in his science. And that changed everything.

A loved one was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Doctors don’t yet know what causes IBD, in which chronic inflammation in the digestive tract leads to problems like severe diarrhea, pain and weight loss.

Dey knew he had to do something to help solve the IBD mystery.

“Once we injected my interest in science and medicine with this emotional connection, it became much of a different situation,” said Dey from his office at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “I wanted to know in the short term what I could do to impact disease care — that was a major shift for me as a researcher.”

Dr. Neelendu Dey in his lab.
Microbiome expert Dr. Neelendu Dey in his lab at Fred Hutch. Photo by Robert Hood

It just so happened that his loved one’s diagnosis coincided with science’s first major forays into the microbiome, the communities of microbes throughout the human body. Scientists are now learning how these bacteria, fungi and other microscopic beasts affect our health, from our cancer risk to the efficacy of the drugs we take.

As he read those early research papers, it dawned on Dey what a huge influence this unexplored frontier was going to have on the care of patients, and not just those with IBD.

Like every true hockey fan, Dey drew on the wisdom of the Great One to guide him forward. “Skate to where the puck is going,” Wayne Gretzky supposedly said, “not to where it has been.”

So, without any background in the field or relevant research infrastructure at the institution where he was then training, Dey looked ahead and transformed himself into a microbiome expert.

That hard-won expertise has since led Dey to broaden his research focus to colon cancer, which the microbiome also affects. Although scientists don’t yet know many of the details, your particular mix of gut bugs, along with your genes and your diet, can make you more likely to develop colon tumors.

Dey is learning how your body, your diet and your intestinal bacteria interact with each other as they enact their complex biological dance. As he maps out those tangled webs, he is searching for the triggers of disease development — knowledge he hopes will be a springboard to future targeted interventions that can shift your body away from danger.

So far, what he’s seen in his lab fascinates him — and gives him hope.

“If we could somehow massage gut bacterial metabolism deliberately … theoretically the power of the gut microbiome could even be greater than genetic susceptibility to colon cancer.”

Although the scientific evidence isn’t there yet, Dey envisions a future in which doctors could prescribe a patient a special diet or medicine, modify the person’s unique microbiome, and improve their health or quality of life.

Thanks to her doctors, Dey’s loved one with IBD is doing well now. As a doctor himself, Dey, too, is gratified each time he sees his care improve someone’s life, sometimes in the span of just one appointment.

With his research, the horizon of change is farther away. But he’s got his eye on that distant vista.

“It will potentially impact more people, be more broadly applicable,” he said. “And it inspires the same kind of excitement for me.”


— By Susan Keown, July 30, 2019

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Last Modified, September 14, 2020