Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has three Nobel Prizes hanging in its Seattle lobby and a worldwide reputation for the quality of its science. But one honor has remained elusive, until now: a creature named after it.
Researchers at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington, with colleagues in Pittsburgh and Boston, named the bacterium Megasphaera hutchinsoni in honor of the place where researchers first isolated it and in recognition of the Hutch’s longstanding expertise in HIV research. The bacterium can be found in some women with bacterial vaginosis, or BV, and it is known to boost the risk of contracting HIV.
Drs. Sujatha Srinivasan and David Fredricks are experts in the vaginal microbiome who led the Fred Hutch portion of the collaboration that described and officially named the organism and two related bacteria in a publication this week. We sat down with them to talk about M. hutchinsoni (huhtch-ihn-SOH'-nee), how bacteria are named, and what they want people to know about BV.
The origins of the M. hutchinsoni bacterium lay with the birth of the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project in 2007. This ambitious project brought together researchers around the world to better understand the communities of bacteria that call our bodies home: the human microbiome.
Bacteria live all over the insides and outsides of the human body, from the skin to the gut to the genitals. Many of these bugs are unassuming passengers that don’t — as far as we can tell — affect us one way or another. Some are helpful: The right intestinal bacteria, for example, can improve immune response and decrease cancer risk. And a few of these bugs can cause disease, like those involved in BV.
Fredricks and Srinivasan urge anyone with possible symptoms of bacterial vaginosis, including discharge and a bad odor, to see their doctors. BV is treatable with prescription medications, but it can have similar symptoms as other vaginal infections. You can’t know for sure, or access effective treatment (over-the-counter products don’t work against BV), without a doctor’s visit.
Read more about how to keep your vagina healthy in this 2015 interview with Fredricks: Don’t douche, and other lessons about the vaginal microbiome
People with BV often have an unpleasant vaginal odor, but more seriously, they have a higher risk of certain severe health problems: Besides HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, those with this common vaginal infection are at greater risk of preterm birth and pelvic inflammatory disease, although scientists don't yet know why.
It’s clear that microbiota are important components of a healthy body. But learning why — including how to modify them to improve our health — isn't possible without cataloguing the bugs and developing the methods necessary to study them in detail.
So, Fredricks’ team got funding through the Human Microbiome Project to study the bacteria of the human vagina, particularly those associated with BV, and to develop methods to grow them in a lab.
“Prior to this, in the vagina, many of the bugs may have been cultivated, but there was no systematic identification,” Srinivasan explained. “So, you know, investigators have had these squirrelled away in freezers, but no one ever knew what was in there.”
The technology existed to do this work years before, the researchers explained, but because this type of science is about pure discovery, not hypothesis-testing, there’s rarely any funding to do it. The Human Microbiome Project was their chance to detail the biology of as many of them as possible and release this wealth of new knowledge to the global scientific community.
Over several years, the researchers invited women in Seattle to come into the clinic, where medical staff collected swabs and fluid samples from their vaginas. Those samples went off to the lab, where the team has been painstakingly trying to grow as many bacterial species as possible.
Identifying a bacterium is not as easy as looking at a sample under a microscope and saying “eureka.” First, you’ve got to get the bug to grow. And for species used to the particular conditions within a human vagina — oxygen-deprived, acidic, life-teeming — a laboratory is not their happy place.
Trying one growing method after another, including new ones developed just for this project, the researchers have labored to identify the conditions under which each of these persnickety species will multiply. They're comparing the bugs’ DNA barcodes to genetic data in worldwide scientific databases, looking for matches. They are doing detailed studies of the microbes’ biology and structures. And they are sequencing entire bacterial genomes and depositing that information in global repositories that scientists around the world can access. The project relies on having a team of experts across the country who can contribute the different necessary areas of expertise.
“It’s been a decade since we started, and we probably have another decade’s worth of work,” Srinivasan said.
These bacteria have not all been brand-new to the scientists: In some cases, they had been studying them for years, learning about their links to disease. But without a name — just a number.
It takes a lot of information to officially name a bacterium. Researchers start with the barcode and a comparison to known species. Then they have to detail its lab growing conditions. Its structure and appearance. Its position in the bacterial family tree. What it likes to eat. Its metabolic byproducts. Which antibiotics it’s susceptible to. Then, they work with scientific naming experts to make sure the potential name follows scientific conventions and rules of Latin grammar, and publish in the particular scientific journal that gives the new name its imprimatur.
Fitting all this information into a paper officially naming M. hutchinsoni and its two new sisters — M. lornae and M. vaginalis — took the authors 14 pages, plus a supplement.
“It is an incredibly laborious process to put this together, and it’s just not an easy paper to write, but it is essential for moving the field forward,” Fredricks said.
Before this week, M. hutchinsoni was known as “Megasphaera species type 2,” first identified and linked to BV by Fredricks’ team using older genetic techniques in a landmark survey of vaginal bacteria they published in 2005. In subsequent work with women in several African countries, the researchers found the species’ DNA barcode in about a third of their participants and linked it to HIV acquisition.
“This is where our motivation came from to name Megasphaera 2 as Megasphaera hutchinsoni,” Srinivasan explained, “given that it was isolated at Fred Hutch and that it was associated with increased risk of HIV acquisition, and so much work is being done at Fred Hutch now with respect to HIV.”
In addition to many individual research labs that study HIV, Fred Hutch is the headquarters of the world’s largest publicly funded international collaboration carrying out clinical trials of potential new HIV vaccines and of a consortium aiming to cure HIV with cell and gene therapy. For their part, Srinivasan and Fredricks hope to conduct studies to understand how M. hutchinsoni increases HIV risk, with an eye toward developing new methods to manipulate these bacteria to slow the virus’s spread.
While their searches have turned up a few living things named after other Hutchinsons — including a couple of scientists and an island — the research team hasn’t been able to identify any other organisms named after Fred Hutch the research center.
Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.
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