As science learns more about the human genome, new companies are being formed to offer consumers at-home microbiology test kits, a development many microbiologists consider worrisome
Can consumers rely on the accuracy of at-home microbiology tests that promise to give them useful information about their microbiome? That’s just one question being asked by clinical laboratory scientists and microbiologists in response to the proliferation of companies offering such tests.
Advances in gene sequencing technology, new insights into the human microbiome, and more sophisticated software to analyze test data are fueling the growth of companies that want to offer consumers at-home microbiology test kits. And no less an authority than the American Academy of Microbiology (ASM) states in a 2017 report, that knowledge of the microbiome can revolutionize healthcare as “insights acquired from NGS [next-generation sequencing] methods can be exploited to improve our health as individuals and the greater public health.”
The move towards more “precision medicine” in terms of diagnostics and treatments, according to the ASM, is based in part on microbial genomic testing, which when combined with a patient’s medical history, clinical signs, symptoms, and human genomic information, can help “create treatment pathways that are individualized and tailored for each patient.”
However, critics worry about overreach given current limitations in the analysis and diagnosis of microbiome data produced by testing, particularly in connection to the rising number of consumer self-testing services aimed at the general public.
No Science to Back Up Claims of Accuracy for At-Home Microbiology Tests
A recent article from the MIT Technology Review, notes that these at-home microbiology testing services, while exciting, can only offer limited information—despite claims. Companies such as Thryve, for example, offer visitors to their website a $99 gut health kit, which they recommend using four times per year. The goal is to use the data to target regimens of supplements and “correct” problems the testing identifies.
Another company, uBiome, offers physician-ordered and customer-requested test kits that the company suggests can determine risk factors for disease. However, critics suggest science cannot currently back up those claims. Concerns about the value of such consumer self-testing, the legitimacy of recommendations based on “diagnoses,” and basic health privacy are leading to serious concerns within the scientific community.
Ethics and Realistic Expectations
One additional criticism of consumer self-testing of microbiomes involves privacy. An NPR article on the American Gut Project (AGP), which Dark Daily reported on in previous e-briefings, notes that those tested may be disclosing quite a bit of information about themselves. The article’s author points out basic privacy and value concerns about the AGP. American Gut Project is a crowd-funded “citizen science project,” and part of the larger global Earth Microbiome Project, described as a “massively collaborative effort to characterize microbial life on this planet.” (See Dark Daily, “Get the Poop on Organisms Living in Your Gut with a New Consumer Laboratory Test Offered by American Gut and uBiome,” September 9, 2015.)
In her blog post on the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics’ website, Tami Lieberman, PhD, claims that “microbiome profiling is messy (and I’m not just talking about the sample collection).” Lieberman submitted samples to American Gut and uBiome for her article. Lieberman’s skepticism of the services is based on two things:
1. There is no “gold standard” for microbiome DNA profiling technology or analysis methods at this time; and,
2. Human microbiomes are in her words, “a moving target, changing with age and diet.”
Thus, the best these services can provide, Lieberman argues, is a snapshot of gut microbes at one period of time. Additionally, she claims there is a danger in trying to interpret personal microbiome data. And, Lieberman is not alone in her criticism.
Science Must Be ‘On Guard’ Against Hype about the Usefulness of Microbiome Tests
Martin Blaser, MD, PhD, Director of the Human Microbiome Project at New York University, also criticizes at-home self-tests of microbiomes. In a New York Times article, Blaser points out that the enormous amount of data generated by microbiome testing is “basically uninterpretable” at this time. According to Blaser, scientists can chart the presence, absence, and levels of specific microbiomes and note correlations, but there is no way to know if changes to microbiomes in a particular patient signal disease risk, progression, or development.
The study of microbiomes is still in its nascent stages, so despite there being significant information correlating the presence or absence of specific microbes to diseases, Blaser states that scientists are currently unsure of what that correlation implies. They simply know the correlations exist.
Although discoveries related to human microbiomes, such as the link between fecal bacteria and infant intellect, insights into the connections between gut microbiome and colorectal cancer, and the tenuous and debatable connection between obesity and microbiome diversity make for interesting news, science must be—as William Hanage, PhD, Director of Harvard’s Department of Epidemiology writes in an article for Nature—on guard against allowing microbiomics to be “drowned in a tsunami of its own hype.”
The “gold rush” of companies offering consumers an at-home microbiology test requires skepticism, notes Hanage. He further urges researchers, press officers, and journalists to remain objective. Hanage writes, “Press officers must stop exaggerating results, and journalists must stop swallowing them whole.” Hanage warns that scientists should be on guard against the “buzz around the field” distorting scientific priorities and misleading the public at large. So, while studies of the human microbiome do carry vast potential for medical laboratories and pathologists to change healthcare and healthcare diagnostics, a healthy dose of skepticism is still the best medicine.