By Henry Ehrlich
A Tweet from the National Committee for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) informed me that a series of podcasts of lectures was available including one called “Probiotics, the Microbiome, and Host Immune Response—Insights for Novel Therapeutic Approaches,” which was delivered on September 9, a few weeks before the government was shuttered, by Dr. Patricia Hibberd, chief of Global Health at MassGeneral Hospital. This interested me for several reasons.
First and foremost, because the state of gut microbial activity on the digestive system is likely a critical part of understanding the immune system and its malfunctions.
Second, it shows how seriously the NIH takes the challenge of subjecting unconventional treatments to high standards of proof, and the intricacies of research conducted according to protocols. As Dr. Hibberd explains, probiotics are being studied chaotically and unconvincingly, even as they are being marketed as supplements.
Third, it underscores the importance of maintaining a mechanism for funding basic research. Gone are the days when a monopoly like AT&T or IBM could afford to pile up rosters of Nobel Prize winners the way the New York Yankees buy baseball all stars, for the simple reason that they are no longer monopolies. Basic research funding comes primarily from three federal agencies, the NIH, the Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation. They provide the seed money for a broad range of research at universities and institutes. Private capital comes into play later on when certain ideas show promise for commercial development. Case in point: we wouldn’t have the iPhone if, many years ago, the DoD hadn’t seen the need for a dispersed communication system that could function in time of war, and invested in what became the internet.
Don’t be afraid of yawning your way through this lecture. Dr. Hibberd is a lively lecturer who leavens her hour-long speech with wry reference to her own British origins, and prefers the word “poop” to more formal alternatives in the discussion of one of the most promising treatments, fecal transplantation. Anyone interested in the promise of probiotics for fixing what ails us and our kids would be well advised to take an hour for this podcast.