Friday, August 29, 2014

Overselling the Microbiome Award: Peanut Allergies Cured with Microbiome

I'm always interested in potential therapies about nut allergies, due to my previously documented allergies that are now causing anaphylactic reactions.  It's an annoying allergy, and one I hope I did not pass down to my daughter. Diagnoses of food allergies are on the rise, and it is estimated that 3.9% of US children have some kind of food allergy.

It makes sense that scientists are looking to the microbiome to help treat food allergies. There is extensive research on the human microbiome and its implication in human disease. A portion of the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is funding gut microbiome research.  In the current phase, Ramnik Xavier (Massachusetts General Hospital, Broad Institue) and Curtis Huttenhower (Harvard School of Public Health, Broad Institute) are focused on the gut microbiome and IBD.

However, science reporting is not doing scientists or their research any favors with headlines and reporting like this.  (Both are reporting on an article in PNAS "Commensal bacteria protect against food allergen sensitization".)

A gut microbe that stops food allergies (in Science Magazine) by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

In this case, it's really the headline that bothers me.  The article itself makes it very clear that it is in mice.  But, really, how many people are going to read the full article?  And what is CNN going to say when it writes a story based on this headline?

Scientists may have discovered how to stop your peanut allergies for good ( - Eileen Shim
The news: If you or someone you know is one of the 15 million Americans with food allergies, we have some great news for you. Researchers at New York University Medical Center have not only figured out why people are allergic to certain foods, they have also come up with a way to potentially treat or even extinguish food allergies.
The team found that young children overexposed to antibiotics were at greater risk of developing food allergies. Thankfully, though, they also discovered a way to combat the impact of antibiotics, which, theoretically, could potentially cure people of their food allergies.
Nowhere in the first two paragraphs of this article does it say that this work was all done in mice.  The researchers also do not make the claim that all peanut allergies are caused by altered gut microbiota.

The lack of scientific literacy in the US has been driving me crazy for a long time.  I also find reporting like this irresponsible.

I'm awarding my own Overselling the Microbiome award to Eileen Shim and the headline writer for Science Magazine (it may have been Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, but I am not making that assumption).