Cancer Crusader

Health battle spurs study of the microbiome, diet and disease

Over the past 14 years, the study of the microbiome in humans — the collection of microorganisms found throughout the body in areas such as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract — has blazed trails in understanding the relationship between diet, microorganisms and health. Baylor’s Dr. Leigh Greathouse is among the early practitioners of this discipline, and her research focuses on the development of clinical tools to improve the treatment of colon cancer.

Rapid growth in any field calls for ethical leaders who identify exacting standards to move the discipline forward and ensure better outcomes for the people the research serves. Greathouse, who joined the Baylor faculty in 2015 as an assistant professor of nutrition sciences, is one such leader. Her Oct. 21, 2019, article in the journal Genome Biology argued for consistent DNA extraction protocols. 

For Greathouse, it is the latest step on a journey motivated by her experience as a cancer survivor.

When she was 24 years old, Greathouse experienced unusual stomach pains that proved to be the symptom of something much deeper — stage IV uterine leiomyosarcoma. The diagnosis led her on a journey through six rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries before hearing the words “cancer free.” The daily battles led her to a perceptive insight.

“I noticed that when I changed from eating ‘comfort food’ to food I knew was healthy and anti-inflammatory, I had a dramatic improvement in my energy,” Greathouse said. “This drove home the importance of diet in response to cancer therapy. Also, my long-term battle with GI issues after my cancer treatment was over focused my attention on preventing and alleviating GI issues during and after cancer treatment.”

At Baylor, she established the Laboratory of Health and Human Behavior and continued a research portfolio that includes numerous publications on topics such as the microbiome and cancer, obesity and reproductive health.  

“We’re seeing that changes in your gut community affects disease, obesity, mood, behavior, autism, so many things. We’re ready for protocols,” Greathouse said. “That’s one thing we need going forward.”

Her work includes training the next generation of microbiome researchers at Baylor. 

“I wanted to do good science in an environment supportive of my goals,” Greathouse said. “I wanted to be able to mentor young investigators, young scientists, to empower them with the knowledge and ability to recognize good science and bad science and solve problems. Baylor provides such a supportive environment. Together, we can find solutions.”