A recent news article described a forthcoming phone app system that will assemble health information from a user’s antibodies, DNA and the bacteria in their gut (1). Intended to provide tips concerning healthy dietary practices and activities as well as possibly revealing diseases in their early stages, the information may have impressed a number of readers. The problem with the news story is that only people directly involved in the creation of the new app were interviewed. Although the sources are well-informed and their affiliations were made clear in the article, readers ended up getting only the press release side of this story.
One of the persons interviewed claimed that antibody testing performed on a drop of blood could reveal around 50 diseases including diabetes, lung cancer and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). That last claim about AD is quite interesting because no one else in the world can do any such thing. A test like that has been sought for many years and would in and of itself be considered a major, tremendously important breakthrough. However, AD clinical trials have failed in part because researchers have not been able to find reliable biomarkers (2) and are not even sure exactly what sequence of pathology triggers dementia (3).
The developers anticipate their new technology will be able to identify at least a hundred diseases by the end of the year. I wish them luck, but predict that they will have one heck of a time validating their test for AD, so better make that 99. While there is a great deal of excitement regarding the health influences of our microbial symbionts, the established information is so scanty it is nowhere near anything that could be reduced to useful clinical practice. Caveat emptor.
Scientists and technology developers should be enthused about their work, but journalists must recognize the need to include balancing opinions from neutral experts whenever key sources have a clear conflict of interest. In this instance at least some aspects of the new app were greatly over-hyped. This may serve the short-term needs of the developers, but as other have noted for overstated scientific claims propagated in social media (4), weakly sourced articles in the mainstream press may unintentionally misinform the public and could end up promoting a general distrust and cynicism toward science in general.
(1) D. Staahl. 2017. App That Tracks Your Health Down to DNA Will Include ASU Technology. 31 January 2017. http://www.azfamily.com/story/34395617/app-that-tracks-your-health-down-to-dna-will-include-asu-technology#