Millions of people worldwide consume probiotics for their apparent health benefits but there were mixed messages about them in the media last week as a result of two studies conducted by researchers at the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel. Whereas one media report concluded taking probiotics was “almost useless”, another stated the research found “some people’s digestive systems held on to the probiotics” while in others “the body expelled the good bacteria”. In fact, the researchers found probiotic bacteria were shed by all study participants consuming probiotics regardless of whether they were responsive to probiotics or not. More on the research findings in a moment.
Investigating the gut microbiome – the good and bad microbes you find in the human digestive system – is a rapidly growing and complex field. The gut microbiome plays an important role in good health as well as disease. Probiotics are foods and dietary supplements containing living bacteria that are thought to help the digestive system. The probiotics industry is booming.
So what’s the story with this latest research? Now the dust has settled let’s take a look…
On Monday 3 September 1928, Alexander Fleming saw something that would later revolutionise modern medicine and save countless lives. His finding opened the way to treating deadly infectious diseases and enabled the development of surgery, organ transplantation and cancer chemotherapy. He discovered penicillin.
It’s often described as an accidental discovery, yet Fleming could have easily overlooked what he saw that day. Natural curiosity together with astute observation form the foundation of scientific enquiry. To some degree in science you make your own luck. So chance observation or moment of genius?
That Fleming was a researcher at all, was serendipitous. You could describe him as an accidental researcher. He had planned to train as a surgeon when he graduated with a medical degree from St Mary’s Hospital in London in 1908. Two years earlier, while he was still studying, Fleming was persuaded to take a temporary job as a junior research assistant by fellow doctor, John Freeman. Freeman was an enthusiastic member of St Mary’s Rifle Club, which needed some new talent for various shooting competitions. Fleming, as it happened, was a brilliant marksman, and Freeman was keen to find reasons for him to stay. In fact, Fleming remained a member of the Inoculation Department at St Mary’s Hospital for the next 49 years.
The Day that Changed the World
Imagine the scene. Fleming had returned to work at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School after a summer holiday with his family at their country home in Suffolk. The newly promoted Professor of Bacteriology sat at his cluttered laboratory bench and began to sort through a stack of petri dishes (culture plates) containing cultures of a common bacterium known as Staphylococcus aureus. Fleming would often leave petri dishes containing cultures on his bench for several weeks to see what happened to them. Not surprisingly, he found a number of petri dishes were contaminated with yeasts and moulds. Then a visitor arrived at the laboratory.
How long we all should live is like a weather gauge that measures the nation’s health climate. It’s known as “life expectancy” and should steadily increase from year to year when there’s no major events like war or epidemics. But not by much… progress depends on more people dying when they are older because of better treatments for age-related conditions.
If a country’s average life expectancy decreases, it rings alarm bells. Problems with healthcare services, poor lifestyle or social and economic adversity are some of the most likely factors at play.
New research published in the British Medical Journal this month shows many of the world’s wealthiest nations took a hit to life expectancy in 2014-15, probably due to a severe influenza season. The average decline was 0.21 years for women and 0.18 years for men.
I’ve never given a thought to cancer in elephants until researchers at the University of Chicago last week revealed a partial explanation for why elephants are cancer resistant… only about 5% of them die of cancer compared to humans who have 11-25% cancer mortality across different populations.
Because larger animals have more cells and usually live longer than smaller ones, you might expect there to be more opportunity for them to develop cancer. But there’s no connection between body size, lifespan and cancer risk across animal species. This surprising phenomenon is called Peto’s Paradox after the epidemiologist Richard Peto who in 1975 noticed mice and humans have a fairly similar risk of developing cancer despite their vast differences in size and lifespan.
Through evolution, large animal species appear to have developed ways to decrease their cancer risk. Different animals have evolved along various lineages which means a number of mechanisms are probably involved in cancer resistance. Researchers are keen to understand cancer protection processes in order to provide insights into how cancer develops and potential cancer prevention strategies. Studying elephant genetics is providing some significant clues.
We are surrounded by information about health. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not so good. And some is downright bad.
The good stuff will often be found in peer-review journals. This means a research study has been evaluated by experts in the relevant field before being published. The journal regards the research to be high quality and the study has evidence for the conclusions made. Unfortunately, not many journals are open access and freely available. The other tricky thing is that the methodologies and language used to write the articles are very technical. It is then up to science/health communicators and the media to translate the research into something meaningful to the general public. This is where things can get a bit hit and miss for a range of reasons.
Some research institutions and research funders including not-for-profits will talk up the results to promote their work. The promise of clinical trials imminently, when in fact they are several years away, is a common tactic. The research may well be encouraging but it is a cruel enticement for those patients who don’t have years to live and no likelihood of making it on to a trial. Many institutions and funders do of course report responsibly about their findings, perhaps at the risk of being a little boring, and their stories constitute more of the good stuff you’ll find on the Internet and beyond.
The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started – Norman Cousins, Author.
Welcome to The Accidental Researcher!
Health and medical research provides hope for many patients and their families. While there’s no doubt research is changing the future of many serious illnesses, it’s a slow, laborious process.
There are highs and lows, twists and turns. A discovery that points the way to a new potential therapeutic target is exhilarating. Even better still of course, is the development of a new treatment after decades of effort by numerous people. The lows cast long shadows at times. Failure to win grant funding is perhaps the most common setback, threatening the future of a particular research direction, or worse, continued job prospects in an ever competitive world.