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[Magazine article] Sorry, Your Gut Bacteria Are Not the Answer to All Your Health Problems | Mother Jones

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Sorry, Your Gut Bacteria Are Not the Answer to All Your Health Problems | Mother Jones.

Excerpts

In 2001, Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, coined the term “microbiome,” naming the trillions of microorganisms that reside in and on our bodies. Today, if you type that word into Google, you’ll turn up thousands of hits linking gut bacteria to a laundry list of health problems, from food allergies to Ebola. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of journal articles published on the microbiome increased by nearly 250 percent. Our bodily inhabitants are quickly being cast as culprits or saviors for a diverse array of ailments.

Still, despite the optimism, some researchers caution that much of what we hear about microbiome science isn’t always, well, science. Dr. Lita Proctor heads the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Microbiome Project (HMP), an outgrowth of the Human Genome Project. “We are discovering a whole new ecosystem,” she says. But “I do have some fear—we all do in the field—that the hype and the potential overpromise, and the idea that somehow this is going to be different—there is a terrific fear that it will all backfire.”

he goal of the first phase of the HMP was to identify the microbial makeup of a “healthy” microbiome. And, in a study published earlier this year, researchers made an important discovery—that there is no such thing. Even among people who were examined and found to be perfectly healthy, each person’s microbiome was unique.

“We were going about it all wrong,” Proctor explains. “It is not the makeup—these communities come together and they actually become bigger than the sum of their parts…It almost doesn’t matter who is present, it just matters what they are doing.”

Jonathan Eisen, a professor and biologist who studies the ecology of microbes at the University of California-Davis, shares Proctor’s concerns. In a series on his blog called “The Overselling the Microbiome Awards,” Eisen highlights what he considers to be skewed science. He has taken on transplants purported to treat multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. He casts doubt on a study claiming there’s a connection between a mother’s oral hygiene during pregnancy to the health of her newborn. He critiques the notion that you can use bacteria to battle breast cancer, prevent stroke, and cure Alzheimer’s.

Eisen says that one of the most common errors in studies is confusion between correlation and causation. [My emphasis!]  “The microbiome has 400 million different variables that you can measure about it,” Eisen explains. “The different sites, the different species, the relative abundance of those species, the variation—if you have that many variables, I can guarantee statistically that some of them will be perfectly correlated with Crohn’s disease and have nothing to do with it.”

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November 4, 2014 - Posted by | Consumer Health, Medical and Health Research News | , , , ,

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