Possibly interesting new microbiome study but can’t get past misleading quote

Just got done reading: Restoring helpful bacteria of the gut and intestines may treat patients with RCDI, find scientists.  A lot in the story is interesting.  And it discusses work by friends / colleagues of mine.  But I just don’t feel like writing about the work because the end of the article rubs me the wrong way.  Here is the whole paragraph that bothers me:

“This study helps underscore the importance of the microbiome in maintaining health and demonstrates that good bacteria play an integral role in immune defenses against disease,” says E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “These findings also provide a potential therapeutic model for other diseases that have been linked to changes in the human intestinal microbiota, such as obesity and diabetes.”

What is wrong with this?  Well, #1 – the 1st sentence implies a bit too much to me that this study is novel in demonstrating that “good” bacteria play a role in immune defense.   When of course this has been shown for many many years.  But let’s let that slide.  Not a big deal.

It is the last line that irks me:  “These findings also provide a potential therapeutic model for other diseases that have been linked to changes in the human intestinal microbiota, such as obesity and diabetes.”

Hmm.  Obesity and diabetes in humans have not been shown to be caused by changes in the microbiome.  And therefore it is inaccurate to imply that one could take the fecal transplant for C. difficile model (which is what this current work is about) and extended it to obesity and diabetes.  You could say he is careful with words here by saying “linked to” not “caused by” but I think the clear implication here is that he is promoting fecal transplants as a therapy for obesity and diabetes.  And he should be more careful (especially as Dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine).  I beg of people out there.  Please please please.  Microbiome studies have enormous potential.  In so many areas.  But we risk turning microbiome work into the next medical snake oil if we are not careful with our words.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

2 thoughts on “Possibly interesting new microbiome study but can’t get past misleading quote”

  1. While I do see where you are coming from about this becoming the next snake oil; haven't the animal studies that have been conducted show, at the very least, a link between microbes and obesity? What I would say from my own DIY FMT experience is it had a far greater impact on my body than remission of ulcerative colitis. It seems to have altered my hormones and metabolism. I would love to understand the changes that have occurred. Adina

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  2. I study microbiomes because I think they are potentially involved in all sorts of important phenotypes / properties of organisms. But a gut feeling about something is NOT science and the statement here is not supported by science. It is wishful thinking.

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