December 8, 2017
Health Care Heroes Awards

Jackson Lab's Oh pioneers study of skin microorganisms

Jackson Laboratory's Julia Oh in a lab.

Category: Advancements in Healthcare — Innovation

Julia Oh

Employer: The Jackson Laboratory

Title: Assistant Professor

No matter how clean, your skin teems with bacteria, viruses and fungi, and Julia Oh wants to know and understand every single one of them.

Oh is an assistant professor at the Jackson Laboratory in Farmington where she studies the skin microbiome, which are the microscopic bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on human skin. Oh is a pioneer in the fast-emerging field, specializing in the rich and diverse plethora of microorganisms that inhabit human skin. A graduate of Harvard with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, she has already published 15 articles on the subject in an array of prestigious scientific publications.

Jackson Laboratory Director Charles Lee said he is pleased and proud to have recruited Oh, who received many job offers after a stellar fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. Oh has both the academic pedigree and the research chops to accomplish great things at Jackson, Lee said.

"I'm expecting big things from her, as I do from our entire faculty," Lee said. "She's already in the stratosphere."

Oh's interest in the skin microbiome isn't just academic. Her goal is not only to identify and map the genetic makeup of microorganisms populating human skin but also to turn that information into cures for various diseases, she said.

The first step has been to map everything in the skin, a tougher challenge than it might seem, Oh said. The microbial communities that live on us are incredibly diverse, she said, and vary widely depending on the part of the body. The face, for example, hosts a totally different set of microbes from the feet or the torso, she said.

That first part of the research, cataloguing the skin microbiome, has largely been accomplished in the last 10 to 15 years, Oh said. Now, she and other researchers are moving on to the second part, understanding how the various elements interact and how they affect health and sickness, she said. Once that goal is met, the next and biggest challenge follows: genetically modifying microbes to treat everything from commonplace skin conditions to cancer, Oh said.

How might such a therapy be developed and work? One example is eczema, a common and often chronic skin condition. Researchers already know that the microbial communities of people with eczema are compromised, allowing an increase in opportunistic pathogens, Oh said. Inflammation also plays a role in the condition, she said. The next challenge is to fit all the pieces together and determine cause and effect.

"We don't know which one is the chicken and which one is the egg," Oh said.

Once that's determined, researchers will seek to create a genetically modified microorganism that can be injected into the body to treat the condition, she said.

At this point, research on such cutting-edge genetic treatments is restricted to mice, but it is likely to expand to human beings in a year or two, Oh said. But don't expect to pick up your genetically modified microbe at the pharmacy any time soon. Such treatments will have to go through a lengthy Food and Drug Administration approval process and remain years away from market, Oh said.

In recent years, some have suggested that overuse of disinfectants may be killing off parts of the skin we need to stay healthy. Kids in particular are being denied the opportunity to build up their immune systems, they say.

Oh believes such arguments may have some merit but warned against taking them too far. Antibiotics, she noted, have been the greatest single saver of human life in history, she said. She counsels "a happy medium" when using disinfectants and antibacterial products.

Another unique aspect to Oh's research is her use of strands of DNA as opposed to splices. Instead of looking at single genes, she works with much bigger samples, providing "a far richer data set," she said. That produces a bigger and more complete picture much faster, she said.

"A great analogy," Oh said of the old, single-gene method, "is trying to figure out everything about a car just by looking at its steering wheel."

Since arriving at Jackson Laboratory in 2015, Oh has won grants from a variety of organizations, including the NIH, American Cancer Society, Azitra, the Global Probiotics Council, and The Jackson Laboratory Director's Innovation Fund.

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