Advancing the Science

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November 1, 2019

A ‘gut-feeling’ for high-risk, high-reward research

By Caitlin Doran
Dr. Beyder holds a lab notebook, posing in his lab
Arthur Beyder, M.D., Ph.D.

Arthur Beyder, M.D., Ph.D., runs a research laboratory at Mayo Clinic focused on examining the molecular mechanisms of gastrointestinal function and dysfunction in diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome. His goal is to discover better ways to diagnose and treat these conditions, including individualized treatment options.

"These conditions affect 10-15 percent of Americans, and it's amazing how much we still have to learn about the molecular mechanisms of these diseases," says Dr. Beyder. 

Dr. Beyder believes that the "high risk, high reward" approach may be the best way to go when it comes to tackling this problem. He recently received a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award,  honoring his work as an "exceptionally creative early career investigator," an award given to support the researchers who pursue high risk, high reward research.

What is high-risk, high-reward research?

lab equipment
Using the patch-clamp technique to study the mechanical and electrical properties of sensory cells.

High-risk, high-reward research is innovative research that pushes the boundaries of science and has the potential for broad impact.

"Incremental questions lead to incremental progress," says Dr. Beyder. "High-risk questions allow us to break away to view the problems in a completely different light or from a different perspective. These approaches allow us to make big leaps forward and often bring true transformation in science and medicine."

"At Mayo Clinic, we're focused on turning scientific discoveries into treatments quickly, so patients can benefit as soon as possible," says Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, and one of Dr. Beyder's mentors. "To achieve that, we need to think big, move fast, and take well-calculated risks. Researchers like Dr. Beyder are helping advance a new mindset that will accelerate innovation."

Does the gut have a sense of touch?

Dr. Beyder wants to get to the bottom of "gut feelings." These gut feelings may be disrupted and manifest as gastric discomfort, such as indigestion. Dr. Beyder’s research has shown that the cells involved in producing these sensations have a lot in common with the way the skin feels the sensation of touch. 

"Mechanical sensors in the gut that release serotonin, which regulates important aspects of digestion, are very similar to the mechanical sensors the skin to that sense touch," says Dr. Beyder. The next question he wants to answer is the focus of the New Innovator Award – "Does the gut have a sense of touch?"

To answer this question, Dr. Beyder and his team are employing an unusual technique. Rather than observing the function of the mechanosensors in-situ, exerting stimulus on the system and waiting to observe the physiological response, he and his team are reconstructing the system from the ground-up in the lab.

A colorful image of the gut
  1. First, the researchers examine each component of the mechanosensory circuit separately.
  2. Next, they rebuild the circuit piece-by-piece in the lab and see how all the components work together.

"The issue with the 'in-situ' approach is that only the stimulus and the response are visible to the researcher, and no other steps in between are visible," says Dr. Beyder. "What’s innovative about our approach is that it allows researchers to see and understand all those steps. We’re looking at the physiology of the gut from a completely new angle."

No guts, no glory

"We are poised to deeply understand the function of the mechanosensory circuits in the gut," says Dr. Beyder, "and we would not be able to get to this point without pushing the envelope with our science, trying approaches not previously explored in our field."

Dr. Beyder hopes his research will point the way to better techniques for diagnosing and treating gastrointestinal disorders. This includes better and more precise testing methods, as well as more targeted therapies.

"Mayo is the best in world in the field of gastroenterology," says Dr. Beyder. "I'm proud and humbled to be a part of this group." He anticipates that the support he is receiving from the NIH Director's New Innovator Award will allow his study team to accelerate their research.  Ultimately, the goal of his team’s high-risk, high-reward approach is to advance medical science, ensuring that patients with functional gastrointestinal diseases quickly reap the benefits of new treatments.


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Tags: Arthur Beyder, gastroenterology, Gianrico Farrugia, gut health, IBS, Innovations, irritable bowel syndrome, People

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