Seeking a panacea in the gut’s microbiome

It almost feels like people think every known disorder could be cured by tweaking the gut microbiome: The list of possibilities includes obesity, liver disease, diabetes, autism, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, depression and anxiety. The length of that list alone invites skepticism among those of us who cover science. But there’s enough evidence that gut microbes influence disease to make it an exciting area of study.

The challenge in covering an emerging field of scientific inquiry is to accurately convey the basis for excitement while avoiding hype. That’s especially true when reporting on a disease like Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that afflicts millions of people worldwide and has no cure. Science News contributor Laura Beil takes on that challenge in this issue. She interviewed researchers around the world who are trying to figure out how the gut and brain could be communicating. Beil also talked with a woman who created a company to help fund research into the potential role of the gut microbiome in Parkinson’s after her husband was diagnosed at age 44.

Balancing one family’s compelling story against the hard fact that the science may not pan out is a challenge, one that many journalists fail. But Beil was well aware of the pitfalls. She has covered biomedical research for decades, first at the Dallas Morning News (where she worked with former Science News Editor in Chief Tom Siegfried) and then as a contributor for Science News and other publications. She’s also the brains behind the podcast “Dr. Death.” In October, Beil was awarded the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting, one of the greatest honors in science journalism.

She also has a deep personal connection to the story. Her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the mid-1990s while in his 50s. Beil quickly immersed herself into research on potential treatments, hoping that her reporting skills could help connect her father with a cure. “I was completely obsessed with it,” she says. But she couldn’t find anything that could help. “There was nothing to do for him, really,” she says. He died at age 70.

So when Beil heard about the gut-Parkinson’s hypothesis, “the thought that there was something new to talk about was really exciting.” Unfortunately, excitement doesn’t mean that a treatment will develop out of this idea, or even that the notion is correct. “The excitement is for the idea,” Beil told me. Scientists need to test the idea to see if the gut is really involved in the disease (the phase of many efforts now) and then figure out if a treatment can be devised. That research process typically takes decades, and the odds of failure are far higher than the odds of delivering a headline-worthy breakthrough. As Beil says, “it’s still a long way between here and there.”

A key part of our mission is covering new concepts in science from their earliest stages, knowing that many of these ideas eventually will be disproved by new evidence. It reminds us why a single study isn’t the whole story, and why findings often contradict each other. It’s not a flaw; it’s the core of the scientific process. High-quality journalism that tempers excitement with skepticism helps make that clear.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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