The Elephant in the Biome

There’s no denying that the microbiome is the hottest thing in medicine these days.  In looking through the medical news and research, I notice daily that the trending, hip, cool and cutting-edge media, like the Huffington Post, are all saying, “The microbiome is “in.”[i]

My blog and I are so totally the avant-garde!

What continually strikes me though is that all these articles focus exclusively on the importance of the bacterial microbiome, even when the article itself alludes to the macro.

For example, this week, Northwestern University’s newsletter contained an article called “Germs at Four, Less Inflammation at Forty,”[ii] about the importance of exposing the infant’s developing immune system to a wide variety of pathogens to train it so that in the future, it can properly differentiate good from bad.  “But exposure to germs, especially in early life, educates our immune system and helps it regulate inflammation more effectively.”

The article describes recent research that looked at babies growing up in remote, non-industrialized societies and concluded that, “…babies surrounded by germs grow up to have lower levels of inflammation in later life.”  And right in the opening section of the piece, one of the researchers is quoted as saying, “Prior research had shown that being exposed to certain types of germs and parasites during early life might, somewhat paradoxically, reduce one’s risk of suffering from allergy later in childhood and adulthood.”   The word parasite (or any related word, like helminth) is not mentioned again.

Helminths are the elephant in the room.  Everyone knows they’re there but no one wants to talk about them.

(They are not sexy…(yet)!  Of course, by the time I get through with them….)

I do wonder how much longer researchers (and too many science writers) can pretend the helminthic elephant isn’t there.  We did not evolve with only a bacterial microbiome. Sheesh! The human body is a complex ecosystem consisting of way more than just bacteria.

What disturbs me most of all are sentences like this (which I see in some form, in almost everything I read):  “Maybe we can develop something analogous to a vaccine to give children a safe dose of germs at key moments of immune development in the first six months to two years of life…”  Wait…what?!

In my head, I hear the voice of my friend, William Parker (a researcher at Duke University, who studies the immunological effects of helminths among other things), saying – as he did in an article in Undark[iii] last year, “’It’s like a bunch of scientists standing around looking at a fish out of water, waiting till he gets sick, and then we’re going to figure out how we’re going to fix him with chemicals,’ Parker says. ‘It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the dark side of modern medicine, right there. Because we’re not looking for water to put in the fish tank.’”

_____________________________________

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-happened-to-our-microbiomes_us_596ebc28e4b05561da5a5bc1

[ii] https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2017/july/germs-at-four-less-inflammation-at-forty/

[iii] https://undark.org/article/helminths-ibs-worm-parasite-auto-immune/


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