Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Microbiome science needs a healthy dose of scepticism



To guard against hype, those interpreting research on the body's microscopic communities should ask five questions, says William P. Hanage writing in Nature.

The questions are: 
  • Can experiments detect differences that matter?
  • Does the study show causation or just correlation?
  • What is the mechanism? A return to a reductionist approach is essential if we are to pinpoint both whether the microbiome affects human health, and exactly how it does so.
  • How much do experiments reflect reality?
  • Could anything else explain the results? There are good reasons to think that bacteria influence us in a host of ways. But there are many other — possibly more important — influences, such as diet.
At the end of the commentary, Hanage concludes: “The hype surrounding microbiome research is dangerous, for individuals who might make ill-informed decisions, and for the scientific enterprise, which needs to develop better experimental methods to generate hypotheses and evaluate conclusions. Funding agencies must not let their priorities be distorted by the buzz around the field, but look dispassionately at the data. Press officers must stop exaggerating results, and journalists must stop swallowing them whole. In pre-scientific times when something happened that people did not understand, they blamed it on spirits. We must resist the urge to transform our microbial passengers into modern-day phantoms.”

To read the article, go to Nature.

Posted by Tim Sandle