With cold and flu season in full swing, students may be heading to medical professionals hoping to get a prescription for antibiotics and a quick and easy means of restoring good health.
However, Martin Blaser, director of the Human Microbiome Program at the School of Medicine at New York University, spoke to around 250 people on the over consumption of antibiotics and their long term effects on human microbes by giving a peek at parts of his book, Missing Microbes and responding to the audience’s questions.
The event was hosted by the University’s Host Microbiome Initiative, the Center for Microbial Studies and Procter and Gamble.
Blaser discussed his book, noting that it revolves around the idea that microbes in the human body have purposely been around for a long time since they are beneficial to humans. However, modern medicine has triggered changes that are leading to new diseases. Blaser said understanding this phenomenon is key for reversing the current situation.
“We have believed so much in antibiotics that wherever we’ve gone we have taken a box with us and people accept it because antibiotics can be life saving,” he said. “They can help in so many severe cases. But none of us have been measuring what are the side effects — what are the down sides?”
Blaser is a member of the eight-member external advisory committee composed of non-University professors and medical specialists that will be reviewing the Host Microbiome Initiative’s work Wednesday.
Thomas Schmidt, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is one lab leader at the Center for Microbial Studies. He said the difference between the Center and the Host Microbiome Initiative is that the latter focuses solely on human microbes while the former also deals with microbes found beyond the human body in aquatic, terrestrial environments and engineered systems.
“One of the missions of the Center is to educate and engage in discussions in discussions of the microbial world,” Schmidt said.
He added that he appreciated gaining Blaser’s perspective and expertise to the public during his visit to the University.
Blaser read excerpts about the effects of widespread use by pregnant woman of the drugs Diethylstilbestrol, or DES, and Thalidomide, both developed in 1950s. He said these drugs never had a lot of scientific basis to support them, but were marketed very well leading to overconsumption. DES in particular, whose symptoms became apparent many years later, is an example of an instance where antibiotic’s potential side effects may not be initially apparent.
Blaser noted that probiotics, which are organisms and microbes inside foods that when consumed provide apparent benefits, are usually safe but are largely untested and more research should be conducted on them. He added that in addition to medication, humans often ingest antibiotics when they consume meat and dairy after the animals have been given food supplemented with antibiotics.
He added that people who have minimal exposure to or have never come in contact with antibiotics should see how unaffected microbes look to better understand the full impact of the mutation.
“One of the problems is antibiotics are everywhere — in all the developing countries in the world,” Blaser said.
He emphasized the difficulty in finding a person that was completely not-exposed to antibiotics.
Assistant Medical Prof. Vincent Young said the University will allocate approximately $3 million per year for the next five years to the Host Microbiome Initiative.
He added that this is major initiative both in health and diseases and noted that people often wrongly assume that the Medical School mostly deals with treating diseases.
“The opposite is probably more true with the microbiome; it has ways of keeping us healthy and if we really understand that then that’s really even more powerful than trying to find new ways to treat things,” Young said.