This article was sponsored by ImYoo. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.
Precision medicine is a common term we hear when it comes to treating IBD now and into the future. But have you heard about citizen science as it relates to IBD? Citizen science gives everyone a chance to play an active role in research. Whether that’s coming up with research ideas or taking part in the experiments themselves, citizen science makes it possible for you to have a direct impact. A company spun out of Caltech is taking citizen science to a whole new level. ImYoo is debugging the human immune system by using at-home blood collection kits and single RNA sequencing to discover insights about autoimmune diseases.
Tatyana Dobreva and her co-founder, David Brown, worked at NASA prior to switching gears from space to focus on biotech.
“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the process and highlighted for us what was missing. Since the pandemic, people are paying more attention to their immune systems. Immunology is still as much a mystery as outer space, so that was the next frontier we wanted to get involved in. We feel that the best way to take on that challenge is by building a database across time, for every individual – that is what can make personalized medicine possible and that is why we’re so focused on making this research accessible.”
Since IBD presents uniquely in each person and changes over time, it’s a rollercoaster journey of highs to lows, flares to remission. With all the twists, turns, and complexities that ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s create for each of us in the patient community, following a roadmap can seem impossible.
“Precision medicine tries to apply scientific tools to take out some of this guesswork. A lot of those tools look at the genetic material you inherited from your parents. We’re adding another tool to that kit by looking at the expression of those genes. For IBD, we want to figure out which genes and cells are acting up during a flare,” said Tatyana.
By answering these key questions, clinicians have told Tatyana that it will help gastroenterologists make more informed decisions when it comes to treating and managing IBD and patients can feel more empowered every step of the way. While making the decision to start a biologic can be overwhelming for patients, precision medicine is a way to have powerful data to support the choice to move forward with that treatment plan.
Tracking the immune system over time
ImYoo’s focus is tracking a person’s immune system over time. Researchers do this by looking at RNA expression. Tatyana shared a fantastic analogy with me. She said that DNA is like the menu you get at a restaurant, RNA is your order, and proteins are your final meal.
“There are a lot of companies that look at your blueprint, or in this case your menu – all the possibilities. Our team at ImYoo looks at your cells’ orders over time. That way we can capture how the different immune cells in your blood are changing,” said Tatyana.
IBD flareups are of specific interest to both clinicians and patients. Even after living with Crohn’s disease for more than 17 years, the unpredictability of the disease is still one of my main struggles. The looming thoughts of a flare are always with you.
“There is not much literature on what happens in the immune system during a flare, and we think there are a lot of powerful biomarkers that could be discovered if IBD patients could track themselves during flares and when they feel “normal.” Our IBD study will ask IBD warriors to sample themselves both during and outside of flares,” said Tatyana.
ImYoo built a solid foundation for studying autoimmunity because researchers were able to build a database of “normal” immune systems.
“Being the first to do this for single-cell data means we can provide a helpful reference to enable more single-cell studies for the future. By having a large database of “healthy” immune systems, we can provide more context as to what having a flare means with respect to dysfunctional immune systems.”
How IBD Patients Can Participate
ImYoo’s IBD study was inspired by conversations researchers had across Reddit and in a Facebook group. Patients in the community offered invaluable insights about what to research.
Emily Harari works as a liaison between the scientific team at ImYoo and the patient community. She says if a person demonstrates interest in participating in the study, a screening process will take place to determine eligibility.
If you qualify, you are enrolled under an ethics-approved study protocol and sent a kit that includes a virtually painless capillary blood self-collection device called TAP II. The device allows you to participate in immune studies in the comfort of your home and send capillary blood samples directly to the ImYoo lab. The TAP II is placed on the upper arm and sticks with the help of a gentle adhesive, it barely penetrates the inner layer of your skin and feels like a suction cup.
“For the IBD study, we ask you to collect a few samples when you’re feeling well and a few samples when you’re flaring. The TAP II device is virtually painless and takes just a couple minutes to use. You’ll mail us the tube of your sample with the packaging we provide. After several weeks we’ll report updates from the lab and several weeks after that we’ll release our study’s findings to the community. Since the community is crowdsourcing the study for us, the least we can do is share what we discover. For example, we may find a new gene or an immune cell marker that helps your doctor better treat your flares,” said Emily.
The Power of Crowdsourcing
The best part about a crowdsourced study is that anyone can make a difference. By visiting the ImYoo crowdsourcing page and selecting “Participate in this Study!” you are making a powerful impact. The more people with IBD who join, the more attention we can attract for crowdfunding.
“If you’re eligible for the IBD study, we’ll reach out after we’ve hit our crowdfunding goal. To help us reach our goal, you can express an interest to participate or pitch in a donation to one of our Champions’ campaigns. There’s a network effect we’re going for, one person tapping into their community can open so many doors.”
If you’ve ever been told your labs or scopes look normal or there’s nothing more to do when you’re suffering through IBD, it’s simply not true. Everyone is on their own health journey and deserves a chance to take control of it.
“That’s why ImYoo is excited to put innovative science in peoples’ hands. This research isn’t possible without the IBD community, which is why we invite IBD Warriors to pitch in however they can – skip a coffee and donate $5, express interest to participate, or simply share to your network,” said Emily.
“Our goal is to empower the IBD community with more powerful tools. One of the biggest questions we hear from IBD folks is, “Am I in remission yet?” You might be feeling fine and think you’re good, meanwhile your immune system could be attacking your colon,” explained Tatyana. “We hope to help people track their immune systems when they are most vulnerable.”
By enabling the IBD community to crowdsource our own studies, the power is in our hands. ImYoo wants to explain their research findings every step of the way and keep people engaged, because it really is a partnership. From this IBD study, the ImYoo team wants to prove that the IBD community can make their own research happen. By studying flares, the hope is that sequencing the state of individual immune cells will uncover predictors and targets for more accessible precision medicine.
Connect with ImYoo, Follow and Participate in the Research