Irresistible Obesity News from the Gut

The irresistible obesity news this week was all about fecal transplants from thin humans to fat mice. Researchers from Washington University and a host of other institutions added some compelling evidence to the role that bacteria play in obesity with a new publication in Science.

The researchers found twins who were distinguished from each other by obesity — one had it and the other did not. Then they transplanted fecal microbes from these twins into mice that had no such microbes of their own. The mice that got the microbes from a lean twin stayed lean. The mice that got microbes from the twin with obesity developed obesity.

The researchers varied the diets of the mice and found that an unhealthy diet could prevent any benefit from the microbes. They also found that housing the two different groups of mice together led to the mice with obesity acquiring microbes from the lean mice and gaining a metabolic benefit.

Experts and health reporters were ecstatic about these findings. “It’s a very powerful set of experiments,” said the dean of the Harvard Medical School, Jeffrey Flier. Speculating that this will lead to treating obesity with fecal transplants in people, Michael Fischbach of UCSF said, “I’m very excited about this. I have little doubt that that will be the next thing that happens.”

Flier cautioned that it’s far too soon for that. “This is a scientific advance, but many questions remain.”

An interesting reflection on all this frenzied reporting came from Zoe Williams, writing for the Guardian. She offers up obesity as a perfect example of the spread of evidence-poor medicine through a flawed social network, saying:

Any root cause floated by any scientist is of immediate interest to the media, where, by a combination of misunderstanding and amplification, speculation becomes statement of fact, and suggestion becomes proof.

Obesity has become such a catnip for news, she says, because it allow people to fight about political philosophies of personal and social responsibility while pretending to talk about health. She concludes:

Imagine if the mice and the microbes and the faeces really do solve the obesity problem; what will be our battleground then?

We would love to find out.

Click here to read more in the New York Times, click here to read the study in Science, and click here to read the commentary by Williams.

Catnip in the Window, photograph © Rachel Ford James / flickr

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