MICROBES & YOUR HEALTH

 

GRETA BRAWNER: On Wednesday is our last hour of Washington Journal, we take a look at. We take a look at recent magazine articles; part of (inaudible) magazines series, this week is the recent addition of "Smithsonian" magazine. Here is the cover "The future is here" and inside the magazine is a piece by Richard Conniff who is joining us from New Haven Connecticut. The piece's called "The body eclectic" looking at researching microbes. Richard Conniff let's begin there. What are microbes?

 

RICHARD CONNIFF: So microbes are the bacteria, fungi, the viruses. They live in everything but in particular they live all around our bodies and in our bodies. And we have never really known before what they do and how they affect us. Except the one way, we have known that they can cause disease. So we tend to think of them as the enemy. And that has changed.

 

Greta: And how many do humans have? What kind of information do they hold?

 

Richard: Well so people have started to research the human micro biome over the last ten years and it is kind of starting because it changes our idea of what it means to be human. So we have in our bodies about 10 trillion cells that are certifiably human cells, but then we have a hundred trillion microbial cells. We have 21,000 genes that are human genes that determine our behavior. But we have 8 million microbial genes. And they all have functions. They do things to us. They have help us digest food. They tweak the immune system. They affect us in all kind of ways that we have never really understood before.

 

Greta: Yah, you call it big science in your article. Why is that?

 

Richard: Well so what happened in the late 1990s was that our researchers' developed this DNA sequence in technology that enabled them to identify every microbe in the human body for the first time. Before that, they were only able to identify the ones that happened to be happy in a Petri dish that could survive there in a culture. And suddenly they could look at them all. But you are looking at thousands of species in the in the body all the same time. All of them with multiple genes and trying to make sense of that and make sense of how they interact with each other so that the data comes out of this is just overwhelming. It overwhelming supercomputers, it is hard to deal with. Each individual is also different. So that's a lot to digest.

 

Greta: Who is doing the research? What groups?

 

Richard: So the thing has made the micro biome a really hot top at the moment is that about five years ago the national institutes of health began something called the human micro biome project. And this was an effort, collaboration with about 80 universities and other institutions around the country, about 400 scientists, and a budget of $173 million. The idea was to study first of all 300 volunteers, healthy volunteers, to look at different parts of their bodies and to find out what microbes lived there. So they looked at five basic areas, the nose, the skin, the gut, the uro-genital area and the skin, did I say? I know it was five areas and then they created a baseline of what is normal in humans. And at the same time they also looked at the connections to human health and disease.

 

Greta: So you write also that it goes beyond universities and government study in this (inaudible) capitalists are getting involved, serial companies, why?

 

Richard: Well so the idea of this research and what the government was hoping to do was to sort of what the NIH (National Institutes of Health) was hoping to do, was to bring the role of a microbe biome to the general public attention and to the attention of the pharmaceutical industry and to venture capitalist so that they would take this step further to the point of commercialization and to application in everyday human medicine.

 

Greta: for what purpose- -

 

Richard: So- - go ahead- -

 

Greta: What are they trying to achieve?

 

Richard: Well so once you understand what these microbes do, you can tweak them in all kinds of ways and get them to perform optimally to do things you want them to do or to prevent them from do it other things that you don't want them to do. Even if you could just understand what they are, you can use them in diagnosis. So a standard problem now is that a mom will take her kid to the doctor with some sort of skin rash. And the doctor would prescribe an antibiotic. But the doctor has to basically guess which antibiotic is going to work. And it may take two or three different antibiotic to get to the right one. And meanwhile, the kid is suffering and annoyed and is often a (inaudible) of complaints because they don't trust this antibiotic. But if you can identify exactly what microbes are causing the problem right from the start then the doctor can give the right antibiotic at the right time and get the results much more quickly.

 

Greta: And Matt Smith twit in this "interesting fact," he says "the majority of cells in your body are non-human, but other microbial species."

 

Richard: Yah that's- - that is definitely true. There are about 10,000 microbial species in the human body and they weirdly distributed, so I think there are about 140 different species that live behind the ear, why? I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. 440 live inside the elbow. The majorities of them live in the human gut and are there for digestive purposes and to tweak the immune system. But all together they weigh about as much as- - our microbes all together weigh about as much as the human brain, about three pounds.

 

Greta: You say in the article this is going to turn around 150 years of medical thinking. Why is that?

 

Richard: Well so the germ theory has dominated medical thinking since about the 1880's and that is the idea that pathogens make us sick and that therefore all microbes are the enemy and that we need to be antibacterial, we need to use antibiotics sort of liberally. And it sort of has given us the idea of the ideal antiseptic world. Now we realize that is a mistake. That it is not just- - that microbes are the enemy, they are also essential allies. So we have to learn how to live in balance with them and you know, control the ones that are threats but also encourage and not destroy the ones that really help us to function.

 

Greta: What is destroying the ones that help us function? What is the role of antibiotics?

 

Richard: Well so it's not just the antibiotics. It is all of the bacterial, the antibacterial things that putting on the hand lotion every time we walked down the hallway to kill microbes. But one of the most interesting things out of all of this is an understanding of the destructive role of antibiotics. We have seen antibiotics as our salvation for the last 60 years since they were introduced in World War II. You can understand why we think that way because they do save our lives from incredibly destructions diseases. I remember when I was a kid that every mom worried about blood poisoning. Well people don't think about blood poisoning anymore. It's like it never happened. But the problem is that we have become so dependent on antibiotics and we tend to think of them as the remedy for everything that we use them all the time and the affect is Camilla truly destructive. So the average kid in the developing country gets 10 or 20 courses of antibiotics by the time they reach 18. So we used to think that, you know, you went into the doctor and you asked for an antibiotic because your kid was sick and screaming, your baby had ear infection. We knew that might be bad for society over the ling-term because it might encourage antibiotic resistance. But you want to have your kids feel good now. And so we all wanted to get those antibiotics. What we didn't realize was is that we might be harming the kid now. What happens with antibiotics is that they destroy the body's normal microbial life and the microbes don't just bounce back. They actually struggled to come back. And so when you get those 10 or 20 doses over the course of a childhood, you may seriously impair the micro biome and the result can be affecting our health in all kinds of ways we did not suspect before.

 

Greta: Yah, according to your article, the most recent research on microbes has found that infants exposed to antibiotics in the first six month, 22% more likely to be overweight as toddlers. And then a lack of normal gut microbes early in life disturbs central nervous system in rodents may do the same for humans. And starving children lack the right to digestive micro-organisms to fix malnutrition.

 

Richard: Yes, That was a study that was done in Africa and published this year. It was done in Malawi. And they looked at twins so this kids lived in the exactly the same households and raise of exactly the same diet. But one kid has a disease called (inaudible) which is a severe form of malnutrition and the other twin didn't. And they fed them both the sort of diet that you give kids who are starving. And the kid who didn't have (inaudible) did fine, the other kid didn't and he would be fine for a little while but then go back being malnourished. And what they found was that if you manipulate the micro biome and if you give these kids the right microbes to digest the food; they have a much better chance of recovering from malnutrition.

 

Greta: We are talking about microbes' research with Richard Conniff. He is piece in "Smithsonian magazine," "the body eclectic." Charlotte in San Diego, California democratic caller.

 

Caller: Good morning.

 

Greta: Morning Charlotte. Go ahead.

 

Caller: I was curious as to how does the body pick up its microbes? And if you know, we are constructed by our DNA; do we carry DNA to make these microbes? Thank you.

 

Richard: So we- - Charlotte, we picked the microbes up from the world around us right from the start. One of the most interesting studies has to do with cesarean births. In about 30% of kids in this country are born by cesarean, and they found that kids born that way have a completely different micro biome in their early stages of life. They have micro biome that dominated by a skin bacteria whereas is kids born (inaudible) pick up microbes from the mom's birth canal and they turn out to be healthier as a result because that reach micro biome early on in life is essential to a lot of things, including the development of the immune system, possibly the development of the brain. So the tendency for those kids born by cesarean to have more allergies and possibly other medical conditions.

 

Greta: Jim Buck on twitter "lack of certain microbes (germs) is associated with allergies and probably autoimmune disease as well."

 

Richard: Yes that's right. In a course of this research by the NIH, they did not actually say X causes Y. It's very difficult to say that the lack of the particular microbe or group of microbes causes a condition. But they found lots of correlations, lots of cases where children lacking certain micro biome's or children who have been through certain things like cesarean birth then had a much higher incidence of things like allergies and autoimmunity, obesity, Healy act disease all that have become epidemic in society over the last 20, 30 years.

 

Greta: Robert in Tennessee, republican caller. You are up next.

 

Caller: Yes. I'm a retired professor university in Georgia and I'm just overwhelmed by what I'm hearing this morning about microbes and there is millions and trillions of them. And now as a young man I thought that all reality came about by chance, and this is a deeper level of reality I never thought before. I am coming more to the conclusion that there is a great designer of all that is out there. And I lost my atheism way back there. And it just seems this is such a help to me to hear all this complications in my human body, the microbes, I cannot even grasp it. I am just so grateful for what you are saying this morning.

 

Greta: Richard Conniff, talk about the complexity of this.

 

Richard: The complexity- - well so let me tell you how I got into this in the first place. I generally write about wildlife and about behavior. And I was writing a book about the discovery of species in the great age of discovery, the 19th century and I was writing about birds and butterflies and monkeys and that sort of thing. And I was hearing about the microbe biome at the same time. And I realized that I was describing this whole world of astonishing discovery and yet I was completely ignoring this other microbial world, this invisible world. But there was a period of discovery that has been starting in the last 10 years and I am sure will go on for quite a while that was- - that is as astonishing as discovering new worlds in the 19th century. It's finding these new worlds inside of us and that you know, amazing and complex. And it changes our idea of who we are.

 

Greta: Richard Conniff has a blog by the way "strange behaviors.com" for those that are interested in what he is writing and you can follow him on twitter as well at Richard Conniff. We go to Patricia in New York independent caller. Help me with the name of your town, Patricia.

 

Caller: Ticonderoga

 

Greta: Ok go ahead.

 

Caller: Hi Richard. It is conferring to me as well to understand that there are complexities that we have a lot of questions about as human beings. I'm not an advocate of taking antibiotics inappropriately. I have never taken many of them over my life, a few here and there. This morning there was a report on the news about relief of lower back pain of long-standing through the use of 100-day course of antibiotics. Now I don't know what antibiotics were being used, and I do think that the 100 days is an interesting figure. I think it kind of reflects the complexity of the kind of engineering or tinkering or whatever you want to call it that we have to do with these microbes. I just wondered if you would comment on that.

 

Richard: Well I have not seen that study so I can't really comment on it. I think what is promising about research on the micro biome is the idea that you won't necessarily need to go to antibiotics in the future. They will understand how to encourage beneficial bacteria and bring about a balance between the good and the bad bacteria. And the good bacteria will often be able to control and minimize the effect of the bad ones. And that is going to be a much more successful and less destructive way of handling a lot of medical conditions. The example that comes to mind is an epidemic condition now called "C.Diff" Clostridium difficile. And this is a gut microbe. And when you give a person repeated doses of antibiotics, it can wipe out the normal microbial life of a gut, and this one destructive microbe C.Diff starts to take over and it causes really severe unpleasant conditions, chronic diarrhea. And they try to treat with other antibiotics. And that often just makes it worse.

 

Greta: Still an individual twit on this. I read autism may be lack of good gut flora in mom, baby inherits and unable to cover from inoculation assault.

 

Richard: Yah I don't think anybody knows that. Mom shouldn't start to feel guilty about having taken antibiotics. I think we have to wait a long before people get conclusive results about what role microbes may play in autism. It is way too soon.

 

Greta: And it brings up a point that you made in the article. Promising too much too soon.

 

Richard: Yah there is a research at university of California, Davis who issues an overselling the micro biome award. So people are so excited about these discoveries and the incredible implications that they are promising all kind of things, they are promising that the microbes can prevent stroke or cure autism or do any number of things. Really all we have now are correlations. We have these interesting connections between changes of microbe biome and changes in a person's health. But that does not mean that X causes Y. And to get to the point of X causing Y takes a lot of scientific work and to get to the point where we can take that scientific work and apply it to make people healthier well that's a big step and it will take a while.

 

Greta: What about the probiotic industry? You write it's up 22% over last year. What is it and what are they promising?

 

Richard: Well so probiotics contain live bacteria and people have taken probiotics pretty much forever. They are generally harmless. But people also tend now to think that because the micro biome is good and you want have a rich diverse microbial community, that taking probiotics is going to be the answer to everything. They take massive doses of probiotics and those probiotics are not typically carefully regulated by the government. So it's not what you are getting or what affects it's going to have. And the idea that as one of the scientists I talked to put it, the idea that something is a cure-all for everything probably means it is a cure for nothing. So I think putting too much confidence in probiotics can be dangerous. On the other hand, as people do get to understand how microbes work and do develop beneficial microbes that are precisely targeted to specific conditions. Then at some point in the future, we will have probiotics that we will have probiotics that we can apply to very specific medical conditions and make a real difference. But you know, we are not there yet.

 

Greta: Richard Conniff thank you very much for talking to our viewers this morning. I appreciate it.

 

Richard: Thank you   

 

 

                                                               

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