Background: Continued advances in human microbiome research and technologies raise a number of ethical, legal, and social challenges. These challenges are associated not only with the conduct of the research, but also with broader implications, such as the production and distribution of commercial products promising maintenance or restoration of good physical health and disease prevention. In this article, we document several ethical, legal, and social challenges associated with the commercialization of human microbiome research, focusing particularly on how this research is mobilized within economic markets for new public health uses.
Methods: We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews (2009-2010) with 63 scientists, researchers, and National Institutes of Health project leaders ("investigators") involved with human microbiome research. Interviews explored a range of ethical, legal, and social dimensions of human microbiome research, including investigators' perspectives on commercialization. Using thematic content analysis, we identified and analyzed emergent themes and patterns.
Results: Investigators discussed the commercialization of human microbiome research in terms of (1) commercialization, probiotics, and issues of safety, (2) public awareness of the benefits and risks of dietary supplements, and (3) regulation.
Conclusion: The prevailing theme of ethical, legal, social concern focused on the need to find a balance between the marketplace, scientific research, and the public's health. The themes we identified are intended to serve as points for discussions about the relationship between scientific research and the manufacture and distribution of over-the-counter dietary supplements in the United States.