Asthma and the Microbiome – Rodney Dietert PhD Interview

Defeating Asthma Series uncovers New Hope for Asthma Management

In this interview with Rodney Dietert, PhD Cornell University Professor Emeritus, Health Scientist Head of Translational Science + Education for SEED and the Author of the Human Super-Organism How the Microbiome is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life we learn that we’re a superorganism and we are, by several measures, primarily microbial, living on a microbial planet.

Our understanding of Asthma and the way we treat it may soon be radically different from what currently exists, due to new research on the human microbiome and how the microbiome affects asthma.


World Asthma Foundation: What prompted your interest in this area?

Dr. Dietert: It was literally the result of a dream. Woke up in the middle of the night, I had been struggling to write a new paper. The paper was supposed to identify the single, most important thing that you could measure in a newborn baby that would be the best predictor of whether that baby’s life was filled with health or filled with disease. That’s a challenging but a worthwhile idea. What could you measure in a newborn baby? I was pretty sure I had the answer because I’d been working for decades on the developing immune system and it was something surrounding that.

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Dr. Dietert: I started to write the paper and it was a very frustrating, terrible effort. Got a couple of paragraphs down and very unconvincing and uninspired and so I went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night and had a magnificent dream, which I don’t really remember the details of but it’s like, “Wow, have I been dreaming? Wow, do I have this idea?” The idea was the best measurement you could have at that point in time with a newborn is the extent to which the baby has self-completed. By self-completed, I mean acquired a full microbiome from mom, dad, and the environment and that is critical. That’s what we’re supposed to be.

We’re a superorganism and we are, by several measures, primarily microbial, living on a microbial planet. The major life form on the planet are bacteria. Really anything that disrupts that completion, in my mind, is viewed as a type of birth defect. It’s a correctable birth defect but nevertheless, it’s like missing a limb or missing a different organ. To miss the seeding events, to miss the microbiome the baby is intended to have is an incredibly serious biological effect that has really serious health ramifications.

My wife helped me put together the scrambled ideas coming off a dream. We wrote the paper and that wound up really turning my career in a whole different direction because it was seen by some filmmakers who were making a wonderful documentary called Microbirth, and it won the Life Science Film Festival Award for 2014. In that documentary, I was able to explain this concept and why it was so critical for preventing essentially diseases like asthma or really reducing the risk dramatically.

That we had control of these risks, the risk for diabetes, for asthma, for psoriasis, for inflammatory bowel, for a whole host of diseases that were to some extent under more control to a greater degree than we had ever envisioned. The reason we had that opportunity was because there was a new biology that we as humans were not what we had been taught or at least what I was taught decades ago in school and what I taught at Cornell for a number of years. That we were quite different.

Once we’ve recognize that difference, then it changes everything. It changes how you approach diet, how you approach what a healthy life looks like, how you approach medicine, therapeutics, drug development, environmental chemicals. Everything changes. Really that’s been my path, to try and help chart and provide useful information on how we, as a superorganism, can lead a healthier life.

World Asthma Foundation: With that, Dr. Dietert, we certainly thank you for your time, all that you do for the microbiome, and the patient population in the community. With that, good afternoon, and thanks again.

Dr. Dietert: Well, and thank you for all you do with the World Asthma foundation, Bill. Pleasure.

World Asthma Foundation: Thank you so much.