Eamonn M M Quigley MD, Houston Methodist Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College, Houston, Texas, USA; Hania Szajewska MD, The Medical Univesrity of Warsaw, Department of Paediatrics, Poland; Dan Merenstein MD, Department of Family Medicine, Georgetown University
We read with interest and some concern the Medical News and Perspectives article by Jennifer Abbasi titled “Are Probiotics Money Down the Toilet? Or Worse?” (Abbasi 2019). As researchers committed to the study of fecal microbiota transplant, prebiotics and probiotics, we find the title overly sensationalist for an article that ultimately provides a more nuanced view. It is unfortunate that the author focused on studies which either did not report on any clinical outcome and hence provide limited insight on the effectiveness of probiotics, or, whose null results likely reflect the late timing of the intervention while failing to refer to many high-quality studies that illustrate the subtlety of commensal and probiotic bacterial actions or clinical efficacy. Tanoue and colleagues provide a reminder that commensal engagement with the immune system is selective and precise (Tanoue et al. 2019). As Dr Knight points out, it would be surprising to witness the same response to any intervention in all individuals (Abbasi 2019). Efforts to individualize medical interventions, including probiotics, are worthwhile, but not yet realized. Until then, available evidence must be critically considered, but not ignored. We wholeheartedly agree with the call for high quality clinical studies of probiotics but assert that it is also important to stress the challenges of performing clinical studies that seek to demonstrate clinical benefits in healthy human subjects; they require large study populations and are consequently very expensive. That clinical studies have been performed and demonstrated robust and clinically meaningful outcomes was illustrated by the study of Panigrahi where they demonstrated that an intervention comprising a probiotic plus prebiotic reduced sepsis among high-risk infants in rural India (Panigrahi et al. 2017). In the meantime, meta-analyses of smaller studies can provide insights into clinical benefit or harm. For example, systematic reviews and meta-analyses have consistently supported a role for probiotics in the prevention of Clostridium difficile–related illness, leading a JAMA review to state: “moderate-quality evidence suggests that probiotics are associated with a lower risk of C. difficile infection” (Goldenberg et al. 2018). Balanced with the low number needed to harm, probiotic interventions are attractive clinical options. We also question Abbasi’s focus on colonization as there is little, if any, evidence that this is necessary for probiotic activity.
We stress the obligation to provide a balanced view of the field which provides equal emphasis on successes as well as failures. No two probiotics (or probiotic cocktails) are alike; we should not expect they all have the same clinical impact.
- Abbasi J. Are probiotics money down the toilet? Or worse. JAMA 321(7):633-635. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.20798
- Tanoue T, Morita S, Plichta DR, et al. A defined commensal consortium elicits CD8 T cells and anti-cancer immunity. Nature. 2019;565:600-605.
- Panigrahi P, Parida S, Nanda NC, et al. A randomized synbiotic trial to prevent sepsis among infants in rural India. Nature. 2017;548:407-412.
- Goldenberg JZ, Mertz D, Johnston BC. Probiotics to prevent Clostridium difficile infection in patients receiving antibiotics. JAMA 2018;320:499-450.
Conflicts of interest:
All three authors are members of the Board of Directors of ISAPP
Eamonn M M Quigley holds equity in Alimentary Health and has served as a consultant to Alimentary Health, Allergan, Axon Pharma, Biocodex, Glycyx, Menarini, Pharmasierra, Salix and Vibrant.
Hania Szajewska reports no conflicts
Dan Merenstein has served as a consultant to Bayer, Debevoise & Plimpton, Pharmavite and Reckitt Benckiser