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Someday a Doctor May Prescribe a Virus to Restore Your Health

More helpful inhabitants call our bodies home than previously known. 


When we look at ourselves in the mirror we think we see one solitary organism staring back at us. But the fact is you are never alone, at least not on the biological level. Scientists are discovering that we are more than mere hominids roaming the earth, but entire ecosystems inhabited by trillions of microscopic organisms in thousands of different varieties, and perhaps even ten times that many. For every human cell in our body there are 10 microbes that inhabit it. But these are so tiny that 98% of our body weight comes from human cells. Our first understanding that microorganisms might inhabit the body came in the 1860s through Louis Pasteur’s germ theory.

Since that time, bacteria, viruses, and fungi in human systems have mostly been considered negative and disease causing. This despite the discovery of helpful bacteria in the intestines of children by Austrian pediatrician Theodor Escherich in 1898. Still, it wasn’t until the 21st century that our attitudes towards microorganisms in the body began to change. After evidence of beneficial bacteria began piling up, The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), beginning in 2008.

This five year international study established the importance of the microbiome, categorized specific fauna, and created a database containing species which have been studied and classified. Today, we know that helpful bacteria aid in digestion, help to regulate metabolism, boost the immune system, produce neurotransmitters which ward off depression, and so much more.


Louis Pasteur developing germ theory.

We now know with certainty that 100 trillion bacteria inhabit our guts, skin, noses, upper respiratory area, armpits, and genitals. Some are good, some bad, and some indifferent. A healthy variety and balance is key. A lack of gut fauna has been implicated in a vast number of different conditions, and probiotic therapy, though in its seminal stages, is being developed to address a host of illnesses. But such discoveries are just beginning. Researchers have recently found strong evidence that colonies of helpful viruses also inhabit human systems, something that is being called the “virome” or viral biome.  

Published in the journal Nature, a team of microbiologists from NYU’s Langone Medical Center in Manhattan have discovered viral colonies that play a role similar to those helpful bacteria inside the gut. Assistant professor Ken Cadwell and his team studied mice for two years in order to make this discovery. Though the norovirus is mostly known to cause food poisoning, a certain kind, known as the murine norovirus (MNV) was able to heal inflamed and damaged intestinal tissue and improve the gut’s immune system after the subjects’ microbiomes had been decimated with antibiotics.


Norovirus model.

MNV was also found to boost the mice’s immune system to defend tissue against damage. Previous work had found genetic traces, suggesting the existence of a virome, but Cadwell and colleagues were the first to validate this theory. It wasn’t known until now if the presence of such viruses was natural or not, and if they were helpful, harmful, or had no effect on their host.

Cadwell called the results of the study “compelling.” He said it was the first time we had evidence on viruses within a host that promote health. One of the mysteries of medical science has been how people often become infected viruses yet do not develop any illness. But just as with bacteria, not all viral infections are bad, and some may be required to maintain optimal health. Cadwell adds, “The finding lays the groundwork for further research on precisely how the virome supports the immune system, which likely applies to humans, as well."


Artist’s rendition of bacteria and viruses living side-by-side.

In this study, researchers used mice who were genetically engineered to be susceptible to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which causes inflammation in the intestine. Though the origin of IBD is not yet known, researchers believe it has something to do with an interaction between the immune system and bacteria in the microbiome. These mice were raised in a sterile environment and made to lack crucial gut bacteria. In this way, their intestine and immune system were underdeveloped. These mice were then fed MNV.

The gut walls of the mice were thin and shrunken at the outset. Their immune systems also lacked T-cells and B-cells. These mice were kept in a sterile environment and were not exposed to any other microbes. After feeding MNV to the mice, their immune systems were invigorated almost to the point where they became normal and their intestinal walls thickened to where they were completely restored. Subsequent testing found that MNV was the driving force behind these improvements. Cadwell and his team also found evidence of interaction between the immune system and the virus.

A second leg of the study used normal mice who were fed MNV after their microbiomes had been obliterated with antibiotics. The mice’s T-cell count doubled. These tests must be repeated to verify results. Researchers also want to know if gut viruses are the same in each person or if a beneficial type in one is harmful in another. The implications are vast. This could start a whole new realm of immunotherapy, and even change the face of cancer care. On another front, those suffering autoimmune disorders, compromised immune systems, and other such conditions may be infected with helpful viruses to get their bodies back on track.

To learn more about the ecosystems living inside of you click here: 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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