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Reality check on microbiome science

Dr. Eugene Chang, chair of the AGA Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education, discusses the importance of responsible communication of microbiome research to the press and public, and provides three key points on this topic.

By Eugene Chang, MD, AGAF, chair, AGA Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education Scientific Advisory Board; Martin Boyer professor of medicine, University of Chicago 

It is an exciting time for microbiome research. From fundamental “bench” discoveries about the bugs that live in and on us to their potential “bedside” roles as clinical diagnostics or therapies, volumes of new studies on the microbiota are published every day. Even as a physician-scientist studying the gut microbiome, it is challenging for me to stay on top of the latest literature. I can only imagine the difficulties for colleagues who are full-time clinicians or for our patients who are eager to know more but are not always sure where to start or what to trust.

For all of us, the press plays an important role in communicating and translating scientific findings to the public. They can help put a spotlight on key breakthroughs and bring attention to studies that may have been otherwise overlooked. However, the press can also inadvertently mislead the public when study results are inaccurately or imprecisely reported. Microbiome research in particular often suffers from this. For example, in 2018, two small clinical studies with healthy participants demonstrated that a probiotic supplement commercially available in Israel had inconsistent, person-specific effects such as bacteria from the probiotic product colonizing in the guts of some individuals but not others. These results were preliminary but exciting, and led to headlines ranging from “Probiotics’ effects on the microbiome vary widely” to “Probiotics labeled ‘quite useless’.” Readers who did not continue past the headline could draw quite different conclusions depending on which publication they were browsing.

Other examples are highlighted in a Nature Medicine editorial that my colleagues and I recently published on the responsible communication of microbiome research to the press and public. Here are some of our conclusions:

Popular science media is a major driver of public opinion and science is no exception. Those who provide “expert opinions” on microbiome research cannot take this responsibility lightly. It is important for researchers and clinicians to maintain an open line of communication with the press and provide fact-based insights. The press often makes unwarranted extrapolations, especially from preclinical studies, and expert opinion is important to mitigate inaccurate or imprecise reporting.

Experts in the field, including from federal agencies and nonprofit organizations such as AGA, are encouraged to partner in providing regular oversight of emerging publications and news reports. Individual experts have begun to use blogs and social media to speak out on the misinterpretation of new studies and counter unfounded claims they see in the media. We also need influential organizations to help amplify these voices. For example, AGA and its Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education periodically review studies that may be inaccurately reported on by the press and develop commentaries providing an objective assessment of the studies and their key takeaways. As a direct line of communication, AGA’s media relations team often connects members of the center’s scientific advisory board and other AGA members serving on the speakers’ bureau to provide commentary on new scientific findings.

Best practices in science communication should be incorporated into graduate training, both by individual mentors and the graduate program as part of its curriculum. Trainees read the literature extensively and are tuned into the latest developments. They are also savvy with social media platforms and other forms of new and emerging media. Providing our trainees with the skills to become effective communicators should be a fundamental component of all training programs and will help ensure that the next generation of experts in the field maintain effective dialogue with the press.

Colleagues in the field have also commented on the importance of communication in microbiome science, most notably a recent commentary by Fergus Shanahan and Colin Hill on the precision of language in microbiome-based medicine. I would also encourage AGA members to share their experiences and challenges with communicating about the microbiome through AGA Community.

Additional reading

1. Shan, Y., Segre, J.A., Chang, E.B. Responsible stewardship for communicating microbiome research to the press and public. Nat Med. 2019 Jun; 25(6):872-874. PubMed abstract 

2. American Gastroenterological Association. AGA’s interpretation of the latest probiotics research.

3. American Gastroenterological Association. AGA’s interpretation of new probiotics research in children.

4. Shanahan, F., Hill, C. Language, numeracy and logic in microbiome science. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019 Jul; 16(7):387-388. PubMed abstract

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