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A postbiotic is not simply a dead probiotic

By Dr. Gabriel Vinderola, PhD,  Associate Professor of Microbiology at the Faculty of Chemical Engineering from the National University of Litoral and Principal Researcher from CONICET at Dairy Products Institute (CONICET-UNL), Santa Fe, Argentina

Postbiotics, recently addressed in an ISAPP consensus panel paper, are defined as a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host. Criteria to meet the postbiotic definition are summarized here. One noteworthy aspect of this definition is that the word ‘probiotic’ does not appear. Although in practice a probiotic strain may be used as a progenitor strain in the manufacture of a postbiotic, the simple process of inactivating a probiotic is not sufficient to be called a postbiotic. It cannot be assumed that any non-viable probiotic cells in a probiotic product are automatically considered a postbiotic component. If a probiotic strain is used as a progenitor of a postbiotic, an efficacy study must be redone using the inanimate preparation and a benefit must be demonstrated. A probiotic product displaying fewer than the labeled count of viable cells is merely a low-quality product; it is not a postbiotic.

Further, the ISAPP consensus definition on postbiotics recognizes that the process of making a postbiotic implies a deliberate step to inactivate the viable cells of the progenitor strain. This process can be achieved by different technological steps such as heat-treatment (perhaps the most feasible approach), high pressure, radiation or simply aerobic exposure for strict anaerobes. A corresponding efficacy study must be conducted on the preparation. Or at the very least, any postbiotic component of a probiotic product must be specifically shown to contribute to the health benefit conferred by the product.

In contrast to postbiotics, probiotics are live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host. Four minimum criteria should be met for a strain to be considered as a probiotic: (i) sufficiently characterized; (ii) safe for the intended use; (iii) supported by at least one positive human clinical trial conducted according to generally accepted scientific standards or as per recommendations and provisions of local/national authorities when applicable; and (iv) alive in the product at an efficacious dose throughout shelf life (Binda et al. 2020). This last requirement reflects the key difference between probiotics and postbiotics. Probiotics must deliver an efficacious number of viable cells through the shelf life of the product. In practice, probiotic products may display significant numbers of non-viable cells (Raymond & Champagne, 2015), as some cells may lose viability during the technological process of biomass production, while undergoing manufacture or preservation steps and through product storage prior to purchase. In order to provide the target dose until end of shelf life, an overage of 0.5 to 1 log order CFU above the expected counts of viable cells is commonly included in the product to compensate for potential losses during product storage and handling (Fenster et al. 2019).

Thus, some quantity of non-viable cells may be usually expected in certain probiotic products, especially supplement products claiming a long, room temperature stable shelf-life. However, they will be considered as probiotic products of quality as long as they are able to deliver the expected amount of viable cells until the end of the product shelf-life. It is worth mentioning that the probiotics are expected to be viable at the moment of their administration. After that, if exposure to different regions of the gut causes cells to die, it is not of consequence as long as a health effect is achieved.

Probiotics and postbiotics have things in common (the need of efficacy studies that demonstrates their benefits) and things that distinguish them (the former are administered alive, whereas the latter are administrated in their inanimate form), but no probiotic becomes a postbiotic just by losing cell viability during storage.

Pharmacists as influencers of probiotic use

By Kristina Campbell, science writer

It’s not an uncommon scene in a pharmacy: someone standing in front of the shelf of probiotic products, picking up various bottles and reading the labels, looking uncertain. The person’s doctor may have recommended a certain brand of probiotic to prevent diarrhea with a prescribed course of antibiotics—but they’ve just noticed that the store-brand probiotic, with different strains, is half the price.

Dragana Skokovic-Sunjic

According to Dragana Skokovic-Sunjic, clinical pharmacist and author of the ‘Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in Canada/US’, pharmacists can play an important and influential role helping patients make informed decisions about the available products. “Pharmacists provide a ‘last check validation’ before the patient actually decides to purchase a product,” she says. “And we proactively seek to assist those patients who need help.”

Nardine Nakhla

Nardine Nakhla, clinical pharmacist and Clinical Lecturer at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy, says pharmacists often have the knowledge and experience to zero in on which over-the-counter product(s) will or will not work for a certain individual. “Pharmacists have the knowledge and skills to individualize the recommendation based on patient-specific and disease-specific factors, and that is so very important with non-prescription and natural health products because there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” she says.

Can pharmacists apply their knowledge and skills to make specific probiotic recommendations? While it can be hard to narrow the evidence down on specific products, pharmacists can certainly play a role in helping patients understand the evidence for the products they encounter. In a recent interview with ISAPP, Skokovic-Sunjic and Nakhla explained why pharmacists in Canada and elsewhere have the potential to steer people’s choice of over-the-counter and natural health products – including probiotics.

Pharmacists have knowledge about the products on their shelves.

“Advising patients on self-care, which includes over-the-counter and natural health product use, is a key responsibility of Canadian pharmacists. We have North American survey data that shows, for patients who go out and buy non-prescription and natural health products, over 80% never read the label,” says Nakhla.

This means that having a pharmacist available at the point-of-purchase to answer questions can go a long way toward educating people about what’s actually in their hands and how to optimize use, if warranted.

“Having the pharmacist present lets you access somebody who can help inform your decisions—someone who can perhaps steer you away from products that may not be appropriate for you,” she says.

“Pharmacists need to be familiar with the products they are selling at their pharmacies,” adds Skokovic-Sunjic. “They are skilled at asking suitable questions to ensure the patient’s needs and wishes are understood and then to help them choose appropriate over-the-counter, ‘self-selection’ therapy.”

Pharmacists are unique in having non-prescription products within their standards of practice.

As a faculty member at the school of pharmacy, Nakhla emphasizes the requirement for pharmacists to know how to assess and manage patients seeking self-care in the community. She says, “We have a unique body of knowledge where we study non-prescription therapeutics and other self-care measures of disease management and health maintenance,” she says. “Pharmacists are trained to know about these and to recommend evidence-based and cost-effective measures individualized for each patient.”

“It’s explicitly stated under our Standards of Practice that we must be proficient in providing information on non-prescription products, natural health products, and on non-pharmacological measures to enable patients to receive the intended benefit of the therapies, whereas physicians are far more focused on the diagnosis and prescription therapies,” she says.

Pharmacists can identify patients who could benefit from probiotics

Both Nakhla and Skokovic-Sunjic emphasize that pharmacists frequently identify people who could potentially benefit from self-care products, even if they don’t come in looking for them.

Nakhla mentions the probiotic guide authored by Skokovic-Sunjic, and how it helps pharmacists provide helpful solutions to common problems that present in the community. “I think a good strategy is looking at the conditions listed in the probiotic guide and the subsequent products indicated for use for them, and then work backwards to try to identify patients who may benefit from the listed therapies, rather than just wait for them to present asking you questions.”

Pharmacists are in a position to encourage prevention.

“Pharmacy has historically focused on providing reactive healthcare rather than proactive or preventative care,” says Nakhla. But this has recently changed, with a growing emphasis on preventing chronic disease through ongoing health maintenance and self-care strategies. She cites pharmacists as qualified health professionals who encounter many generally healthy people throughout the course of their day, and who are therefore well-positioned to advise the public on how to remain healthy.

Skokovic-Sunjic gives some examples: “If the consumer will be travelling, we might suggest a specific probiotic to prevent traveller’s diarrhea. Or if we are coming to the cold and flu season, we may recommend a product they can take to reduce the risk of developing common infectious diseases.”

Pharmacists can conduct brief or lengthy assessments before providing recommendations.

Skokovic-Sunjic says, “A pharmacist can provide specific recommendations that could really make a big difference in the patient’s experience by quickly asking a few targeted questions. This strategy may save the patient time, money, frustration and sub-optimal health outcomes. When consumers self-select inappropriate products, they will not experience benefits they seek. Determined to choose a natural product, some consumers will try a second or even third product but will not get the symptom relief they are looking for. An unintended consequence of this is that the patient may dismiss the probiotics as ineffective not because they did not work, but because it was the wrong product for the desired effect.”

Brief assessment questions are especially important for probiotics, she adds, because specificity can ‘make or break’ how useful they are to an individual. “In my consultations with patients, I quite often include questions about bowel movements and I know they are questioning why I am asking. Understanding gut function can be extremely helpful in providing appropriate probiotic recommendations.”

Pharmacists can help people understand the concept of ‘evidence-based’.

Nakhla acknowledges it’s difficult for the average person to confront a shelf of probiotic products and delineate between the ones that have evidence backing their use, and the ones that do not. “That’s where I really think a pharmacist needs to intervene and to help them balance out the pros and the cons,” she says.

“If patients are looking for a probiotic to relieve a specific symptom, then looking for an evidence-based recommendation for that specific symptom is needed,” says Skokovic-Sunjic. “If they pick something that’s not supported by evidence, it may not provide symptom relief or the benefit they expect. This may be in addition to wasted funds and mounting frustration.”

Thus, pharmacists are in a unique position to contribute to enhanced awareness about efficacy and “evidence-based self-care” as they explain these concepts to consumers at the point of sale.

 

Given all the potential ways for pharmacists to guide consumer decisions about probiotics, both Skokovic-Sunjic and Nakhla agree that keeping up on the latest probiotic evidence is of high importance.

Through ISAPP’s new efforts to engage with pharmacists, the organization plans to gauge how pharmacists in various parts of the world approach probiotic recommendations, and to support the ‘best case scenario’ of pharmacists providing evidence-based information about probiotics directly to consumers.

Sign up here for ISAPP’s newsletter for pharmacists.

What’s a Clinician to do When the Probiotic Recommendations from Medical Organizations Do Not Agree?

By Prof. Hania Szajewska, MD, Department of Paediatrics, The Medical University of Warsaw, Poland

The scientific literature on probiotics is growing rapidly, with newly published studies continually adding to the sum of information about the probiotic strains that confer health benefits in specific populations.

In research, we make hypotheses. Eventually, they are resolved by collecting data or they are replaced by more refined, or entirely new, hypotheses. This process usually unfolds over an extended period of time. Along the way, medical and scientific organizations may decide to take ‘snapshots’ of the evidence to-date and develop guidelines based on available published studies. Unfortunately, disagreements can occur about the meaning of the data, sometimes leading to differences in the guidelines developed by various organizations.

But clinicians cannot always wait for the data to provide a crystal-clear picture. They want answers to guide their clinical practice. Hence the question: Should probiotics be used if guidelines do not agree on the use of probiotics for a certain indication, or on the strains to be used?

Take, for example, the current situation relevant to pediatric practice. Here I discuss two recommendation documents: one developed by the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN), and another developed by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA).

Acute diarrhea

In 2020, the ESPGHAN Working Group (WG) on Probiotics identified 16 systematic reviews and meta-analyses published since 2010, which included more than 150 RCTs. The WG made weak (also known as conditional) recommendations for (in descending order in terms of the number of trials evaluating any given strain):

  • S boulardii (low to very low certainty of evidence);
  • L rhamnosus GG (very low certainty of evidence); L reuteri DSM 17938 (low to very low certainty of evidence);
  • L rhamnosus 19070-2 & L reuteri DSM 12246 (very low certainty of evidence).

The WG made a strong recommendation against L helveticus R0052 & L rhamnosus R0011 (moderate certainty of evidence) and a weak (conditional) recommendation against Bacillus clausii strains O/C, SIN, N/R, and T (very low certainty of evidence)1.

In contrast, also in 2020, the AGA, based on the evaluation of 89 trials, made a conditional recommendation against the use of probiotics in children from North America with acute infectious gastroenteritis (moderate quality of evidence)2. The rationale for the negative AGA recommendation was that the majority of the studies were performed outside North America. Moreover, two large, high-quality null trials, performed in Canada and US, questioned the efficacy of the probiotics evaluated in these studies, for the management of children with acute gastroenteritis 3,4.

Prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis

Another example of discordant guidelines relates to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in preterm infants. NEC is one of the most severe and life-threatening gastrointestinal diseases to occur in preterm infants, particularly those with a birth weight <1,000 g. The factors involved in the pathogenesis of NEC include formula feeding rather than breastfeeding, intestinal hypoxia–ischemia, and colonization of the gut with pathogenic microbiota5.

In 2020, both ESPGHAN6 and AGA2 published their recommendations on the use of probiotics for preventing NEC. While both were based on pair-wise systematic reviews and network meta-analyses7, their conclusions differed. The only probiotic strain that was recommended by both societies was L rhamnosus GG ATCC 53103. With regard to L reuteri DSM 17938, the ESPGHAN did not formulate a recommendation for or against it, while the AGA conditionally recommends it.

Why do guidelines differ?

Many factors contribute to the discrepancy in guidelines developed by various organizations. In the case of probiotics, they may be due to these differences:

  • Study methods. Although dozens of studies involving thousands of patients have been conducted in many indications, studies are subject to bias resulting from incorrect randomization, non-confidentiality, non-masking, or lack of intention-to-treat analysis.
  • Targeted population. The effectiveness of probiotics in different populations may vary, for example, due to differences diet or in microbiota at the start of treatment.
  • Probiotics are a heterogeneous intervention. Even if the rules for assessing individual strains, and not probiotics as a group, are followed, the effectiveness of probiotics is influenced by factors such as product quality, storage conditions, dose, timing of administration, and the duration of the intervention.
  • Outcome measures (endpoints). Studies use different outcomes to measure efficacy, and even if the same outcomes are used, their definition may differ (e.g. diarrhea duration may be defined as time to the last diarrheal stool or time to the first normal stool). Such heterogeneity in the reported outcomes, combined with the lack of standardized definitions, pose a challenge in meta-analyses and should be considered when interpreting the results.

What should clinicians do when the guidelines are not consistent?

Back to the question asked earlier: Should probiotics be routinely used if guidelines from the scientific or medical organizations do not agree on the use of probiotics?

One approach may not fit all. However, in the case of acute infectious diarrhea in children, both the AGA and ESPGHAN formulated a conditional recommendation: in the first case, it is negative; in the second, positive. It is important to note that the interpretation of a conditional recommendation for and a conditional recommendation against is similar. For clinicians, both mean that different choices will be appropriate for different people. Clinicians should help each patient make decisions consistent with the patient’s preferences. For patients, it means that the majority of individuals in this situation would want the suggested course of action, but many would not8.

Taken together, the recommendations communicate that probiotics may be beneficial, although not essential, in the treatment of acute diarrhea in young children.  The use of certain probiotics with documented efficacy may be considered in the management of acute diarrhea in young children.

With regard to the prevention of NEC, the AGA and ESPGHAN guidelines agree that certain probiotics reduce the risk of NEC in preterm infants. However, based on their analyses and the included / excluded studies they differ in the recommended strains; additionally, not all of the strain combinations are available everywhere. Therefore, it seems reasonable to choose a probiotic that is included in the recommendations of both societies (if available). One example is L. rhamnosus GG.

In general, organizations should be commended for taking on the daunting task of evaluating the probiotic evidence – both the quality of the studies and the positive or negative results – in order to generate recommendations. Until further well-conducted studies make the answer clearer, clinicians must live with some ambiguity and use the recommendations in the best way possible to inform their daily decisions with individual patients.

REFERENCES

  1. Szajewska H, Guarino A, Hojsak I, et al. Use of Probiotics for the Management of Acute Gastroenteritis in Children. An Update. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2020.
  2. Su GL, Ko CW, Bercik P, et al. AGA Clinical Practice Guidelines on the Role of Probiotics in the Management of Gastrointestinal Disorders. Gastroenterology. 2020.
  3. Schnadower D, Tarr PI, Casper TC, et al. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG versus Placebo for Acute Gastroenteritis in Children. The New England journal of medicine. 2018;379(21):2002-2014.
  4. Freedman SB, Williamson-Urquhart S, Farion KJ, et al. Multicenter Trial of a Combination Probiotic for Children with Gastroenteritis. The New England journal of medicine. 2018;379(21):2015-2026.
  5. Neu J, Walker WA. Necrotizing enterocolitis. The New England journal of medicine. 2011;364(3):255-264.
  6. van den Akker CHP, van Goudoever JB, Shamir R, et al. Probiotics and Preterm Infants: A Position Paper by the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition and the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition Working Group for Probiotics and Prebiotics. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition. 2020;70(5):664-680.
  7. van den Akker CHP, van Goudoever JB, Szajewska H, et al. Probiotics for Preterm Infants: A Strain-Specific Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition. 2018;67(1):103-122.
  8. Andrews J, Guyatt G, Oxman AD, et al. GRADE guidelines: 14. Going from evidence to recommendations: the significance and presentation of recommendations. J Clin Epidemiol. 2013;66(7):719-725.

What’s the evidence on ‘biotics’ for health? A summary from five ISAPP board members

Evidence on the health benefits of gut-targeted ‘biotics’ – probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, and postbiotics – has greatly increased over the past two decades, but it can be difficult to sort through the thousands of studies that exist today to learn which of these ingredients are appropriate in which situations. At a recent World of Microbiome virtual conference, ISAPP board members participated in a panel that provided an overview of what we currently know about the health benefits of ‘biotics’ and how they are best used.

Here’s a summary of what the board members had to say:

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders: Probiotics and fermented foods

  • Probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
  • Unfortunately, published assessments of probiotic products available on the market show that these products often fall short of required evidence. For example, their labels may not adequately describe the contents (including genus / species / strain in the product); they may not guarantee the efficacious dose through the end of the shelf life.
  • Contrary to common belief, probiotics do not need to colonize in the target site (e.g. the gut), impact gut microbiota composition, be derived from humans, or be resistant to stomach acid and other gut secretions such as bile.
  • Fermented foods are those made “through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components”. The recent increased interest in fermented foods may come from people’s increased awareness of the role of gut microbes in overall health, but it is important to note that we have little direct evidence that the transient effects of fermented food microbes on the gut microbiota actually lead to health benefits. With that said, observational studies suggest that consuming some traditional fermented foods is associated with improved health outcomes.

Prof. Dan Merenstein, MD: Probiotics – How do I know what to prescribe for adult health?

  • A (limited) survey showed that most dietary supplement probiotic products cannot be linked to evidence because they do not provide enough information to determine what evidence exists to support their use – especially strains in the product. However, there are some probiotic products that have robust evidence.
  • Should every adult take a probiotic? The best evidence supports probiotics for improved lactose digestion and for prevention of difficile infection. Probiotics have also been shown to prevent common illnesses; reduce the duration of gut symptoms; and perhaps even reduce antibiotic consumption.
  • Studies will reveal more about the microbiome and about how probiotics work, for whom and for what indications. As with diet, the answer will most likely not be same for each person.

Prof. Glenn Gibson: Prebiotics and Synbiotics

  • A prebiotic is “a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit”. Researchers can test these substances’ activity in various ways: batch cultures, micro batch cultures, metabolite analysis, molecular microbiology methods, CF gut models, with in vivo (e.g. human) studies being required. Prebiotics appear to have particular utility in elderly populations, and may be helpful in repressing infections, inflammation and allergies. They have also been researched in clinical states such as IBS, IBD, autism and obesity related issues (Gibson et al., 2017).
  • A synbiotic is “a mixture, comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms, that confers a health benefit on the host.” While more studies are needed to say precisely which are useful in which situations, synbiotics have shown promise for several aspects of health in adults (Swanson et al. 2020): surgical infections and complications, metabolic disorders (including T2DM and glycaemia), irritable bowel syndrome, Helicobacter pylori infection and atopic dermatitis.

Prof. Hania Szajewska, MD: Biotics for pediatric use

  • Beneficial effects of ‘biotics’ are possible in pediatrics, but each ‘biotic’ needs to be evaluated separately. High-quality research is essential.
  • It is important that we view the use of ‘biotics’ in the context of other things in a child’s life and other interventions.
  • Breast milk is the best option for feeding infants
  • If breastfeeding is not an option, infant formulae supplemented with probiotics and/or prebiotics and/or postbiotics are available on the market.
  • Pro-/pre-/synbiotic supplemented formulae evaluated so far seem safe with some favorable clinical effects possible, but the evidence is not robust enough overall to be able to recommend routine use of these formulae.
  • Evidence is convincing on probiotics for prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants.
  • Medical societies differ in their recommendations for probiotics to treat acute gastroenteritis in children – they appear beneficial but not essential.
  • Synbiotics are less studied, but early evidence indicates they may be useful for preventing sepsis in infants and preventing / treating allergy and atopic dermatitis in children.

Prof. Gabriel Vinderola: Postbiotics

  • The concept of non-viable microbes exerting a health benefit has been around for a while, but different terms were used for these ingredients. Creating a scientific consensus definition will improve communication with health professionals, industry, regulators, and the general public. It will allow clear criteria for what qualifies as a postbiotic, and allow better tracking of scientific papers for future systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
  • The ISAPP consensus definition (in press) of a postbiotic is: “A preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host”.
  • Postbiotics are stable, so no cold-chain is needed to deliver them to the consumer. Safety is of less concern because the microbes are not alive and thus cannot cause bacteraemia.
  • Research in the coming years will reveal more about postbiotics and the ways in which they can promote human health.

See here for the entire presentation on Biotics for Health.

Probiotics and fermented foods, by Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders (@1:15)

Postbiotics, by Prof. Gabriel Vinderola (@18:22)

Prebiotics and synbiotics, by Prof. Glenn Gibson (@33:24)

‘Biotics’ for pediatric use, by Prof. Hania Szajewska (@47:55 )

Probiotics: How do I know what to prescribe for adult health? by Prof. Dan Merenstein (@1:04:51)

Q&A (@1:20:00)

 

New ISAPP-led paper calls for investigation of evidence for links between live dietary microbes and health

The past two decades have brought a massive increase in knowledge about the human gut microbiota and its links to human health through diet. And although many people perceive that regular consumption of safe, live microbes will benefit their health, the scientific evidence to date has not been sufficiently developed to justify adding a daily recommended intake of live microbes to food guides for different populations.

Recently, a group of seven scientists, including six ISAPP board members, published their perspective about the value of establishing the link between live dietary microbes and health. They conclude that although the scientific community has a long way to go to build the evidence base, efforts to do this are worthwhile.

The collaboration on this review was rooted in an ISAPP expert discussion group held at the 2019 annual meeting in Antwerp, Belgium. During the discussion, various experts presented evidence from their fields—addressing the potential health benefits of live microbes in general, rather than the narrow group of microbial strains that qualify as probiotics.

Below, the authors of this new review answer questions about their efforts to quantify the relationship between greater consumption of live microbes and human health.

Why is it interesting to look at the potential importance of live microbes in nutrition?

Prof. Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, University of Minnesota

Current recommendations for fiber intake are based on protection against cardiovascular disease—so can we do something similar for live microbes? We know that intake of live microbes is thought to be health promoting, but actual recommended intakes for live microbes are missing.  Bringing together a talented group of microbiologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, and food policy experts moves this agenda forward.

Humans need proper nutrition to survive, and a lack of certain nutrients creates a ‘deficiency state’. Is this the case for live microbes?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, ISAPP Executive Science Officer

I don’t think we’ll find that live microbes are essential in the same way that vitamins and minerals lead to deficiency diseases. After all, gnotobiotic animal colonies are viable. But I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that consumption of live microbes will promote health. Exactly how and to what extent remains to be established.

Why think about intake of ‘live microbes’ in general, rather than intake of probiotic & fermented foods specifically?

Prof. Maria Marco, PhD, University of California Davis

We are constantly exposed to microorganisms in our foods and beverages, in the air, and on the things we touch. While much of our attention has been on the microbes that can cause harm, most of our microbial exposures may not affect us at all or, quite the opposite, be beneficial for maintaining and improving health. Research on probiotic intake as a whole supports this possibility. However, probiotic-containing foods and dietary supplements are only a part of our dietary connection with live microbes. Non-pasteurized fermented foods (such as kimchi and yogurts) can contain large numbers of non-harmful bacteria (>10^7 cells/g). Fruits and vegetables are also sources of living microbes when eaten raw.  Although those raw foods they may contain lower numbers of microbes, they may be more frequently eaten and consumed in larger quantities. Therefore, our proposal is that we take a holistic view of our diets when weighing the potential significance of live microbe intake on health and well-being.

What are dietary sources of live microbes? And do we get microbes in foods besides fermented & probiotic foods?

Prof. Bob Hutkins, PhD, University of Nebraska Lincoln

For tens of thousands of years, humans consumed large amounts of microbes nearly every time they ate food or drank liquids. Milk, for example, would have been unheated and held at ambient temperature with minimal sanitation and exposed to all sorts of microbial environments.  Thus, a cup of this milk could easily have contained millions of bacteria. Other foods like fruits and vegetables that were also exposed to natural conditions could have also contained similar levels of microbes. Even water would have contributed high numbers of live microbes.

Thanks to advances in food processing, hygiene, and sanitation, the contemporary western diet generally contains low levels of microbes. Consider how many foods we eat that are canned, pasteurized, or cooked – those foods will contain few, in any live microbes. Fresh produce can serve as a source of live microbes, but washing, and certainly cooking, will reduce those levels.

For sure, the most reliable sources of dietary microbes are fermented foods and beverages. Even if a fresh lettuce salad were to contribute a million bacteria, a single teaspoon of yogurt could contain 100 times more live bacteria. Other popular fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and miso, can contain a large and relatively diverse assortment of live microbes. Other fermented foods, such as cheese and sausage, are also potential sources, but the levels will depend on manufacturing and aging conditions. Many fermented, as well as non-fermented foods are also supplemented with probiotics, often at very high levels.

What’s the evidence that a greater intake of live microbes may lead to health benefits?

Prof. Dan Merenstein, MD, Georgetown University

Studies have shown that fermented foods are linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of weight gain, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, healthier metabolic profiles (blood lipids, blood glucose, blood pressure and insulin resistance), and altered immune responses. This link is generally from associative studies on certain fermented foods. Many randomized controlled trials on specific live microbes (probiotics and probiotic fermented foods) showing health benefits have been conducted, but randomized controlled trials on traditional fermented foods (such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha) are rare. Further, no studies have aimed to assess the specific contribution of safe, live microbes in diets as a whole on health outcomes.

Why is it difficult to interpret past data on people’s intake of live microbes and their health?

Prof. Colin Hill, PhD, University College Cork

It would be wonderful if there were a simple equation linking the past intake of microbes in the diet and the health status of an individual (# MICROBES x FOOD TYPE = HEALTH). In reality, this is a very complex challenge. Microbes are the most diverse biological entities on earth, our consumption of microbes has not been deliberately recorded and can only be estimated, and even the concept of health has defied precise definitions for centuries. To further confuse the situation microbes meet the host in the gastrointestinal tract, the site of our enormously complex mucosal immune system and equally complex microbiome.  But the complexity of the problem should not prevent us from looking for prima facie evidence as to whether or not such a relationship is likely to exist.

Databases of dietary information have data on people’s intake of live microbes, but what are the limitations of our available datasets?

Prof. Dan Tancredi, PhD, University of California Davis

Surveys often rely on food frequency questionnaires or diaries to determine consumption of specific foods. These are notoriously prone to recall error and/or other types of measurement error. So, even just measuring consumption of foods is difficult. For researchers seeking to quantify survey respondents’ consumption of live microbes, these challenges become further aggravated because the respondents would not typically know the microbial content in the foods they consumed. Instead, we would have to have them tell us the types and amounts of the foods they ate, and then we would need to translate that into approximate microbial counts—but even within a particular food, the microbial content can vary, depending on how it was processed, stored, and/or prepared prior to consumption.

See ISAPP’s press release on this paper here.

60 Minutes’ 13 minutes on probiotics

By Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, ISAPP Executive Science Officer 

On June 28, 60 Minutes aired a 13-minute segment about probiotics titled, “Do Probiotics Actually Do Anything?” Unfortunately the media segment did not provide listeners with a nuanced perspective.

‘Probiotics’ were treated as if they were one entity, ignoring the best approach to addressing the topic of what probiotics do: evaluate the evidence for specific strains, doses and endpoints, and then make a conclusion based on the totality of the evidence. They would have found that many experts agree that actionable evidence exists for certain probiotics to prevent antibiotic associated diarrhea (here, here), prevent upper respiratory tract infections (here), prevent morbidity and mortality associated with necrotizing enterocolitis (here,), treat colic (here), and treat acute pediatric gastroenteritis (here). (For an overall view of evidence, see here.)

Importantly, not all retail probiotics have evidence (at least evidence that is readily retrievable, see here and here). But that does not mean that none do.

The 60 Minutes segment also highlighted questions about probiotic safety. No intervention is without risk, and no one claims as much for probiotics. Prof. Dan Merenstein, MD, just one clinical investigator of probiotics, has collected over 20,000 pediatric clinical patient days’ worth of safety data over the past eight years of clinical investigation, with no indication of safety concerns. In fact, participants in the placebo group generally have more adverse events than in the probiotic groups. But importantly, the safety standard for probiotics was mischaracterized by 60 Minutes. According to Dr. James Heimbach, a food safety expert (not interviewed in the segment) who has conducted 41 GRAS determinations on probiotics, over 25 of them notified to the FDA, he objects to the statement that GRAS is a lower safety bar than a drug. He clarifies:

“The safety standard that applies to food additives and GRAS substances, “reasonable certainty of no harm,” is a far higher standard than that applying to drugs. Drugs are judged against a risk/benefit standard, which can potentially allow quite dangerous drugs on the market provided they offer a significant benefit. The safety standard for drugs also applies only to prescribed doses for specific individuals over prescribed durations. The food-additive/GRAS substance standard, on the other hand, requires safety at any biologically plausible level of intake, for any person (child, adult, elderly; pregnant; etc.), over a lifetime. And it is a risk-only standard—no potential benefit is allowed to override the “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard. Additionally, in the case of GRAS substances (which includes most probiotics), the evidence of safety must be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and be widely accepted by the scientific community as well as by government regulators.”

Finally, the story implied that benefits people claim for themselves when using probiotics are due to a placebo effect. This ignores the many properly controlled studies directly comparing the effects of specific probiotics to placebos. A positive trial on probiotics, such as observed in this recent trial on irritable bowel syndrome symptoms (here) and in most trials included in Cochrane meta-analyses on prevention of C. difficile-associated diarrhea (here), means that positive effects were observed beyond any placebo effect. The placebo effect is real, equally applicable to probiotics and drugs, but as with all clinically evaluated substances, properly controlled trials control for this effect.

The probiotic field has come a long way over the past 20 years with regard to number and quality of clinical trials. In that time, well-done systematic reviews of the evidence have found benefits for specific probiotics for specific conditions, while also finding a lack of evidence for beneficial effects in other contexts. There are of course well-conducted clinical trials that have failed to demonstrate benefit (here, here, here). This should not be equated to mean that probiotics do not do anything.

Many challenges remain for improving the quality of the evidence across the wide range of different strains, doses, endpoints and populations. More clinical research needs to be conducted in a manner that minimizes bias and is reported according to established standards. Confidence in the quality of commercial products could be improved by industry adopting third party verification (here), and the quality of products targeting compromised populations need to be fit for purpose (here). Companies should stop using the term ‘probiotic’ on products that have no evidence warranting that description. We need to understand much better how a person’s individual situation, such as diet, microbiome, use of medications and fitness, impact the ability of a probiotic to promote health. Much remains to be learned in this evolving and exciting field. As Dr. Merenstein says, “The key question is not, ‘Do probiotics actually do anything?’, as that is easily answered ‘yes’ when you look at robust placebo-controlled trials of specific probiotics. Better questions are ‘Which probiotics do anything, and for what?’”

Further reading:

Misleading press about probiotics: ISAPP responses

ISAPP take-home points from American Gastroenterological Association guidelines on probiotic use for gastrointestinal disorders

New publication gives a rundown on probiotics for primary care physicians

Safety and efficacy of probiotics: Perspectives on JAMA viewpoint

New publication gives a rundown on probiotics for primary care physicians

With an increasing number of patients becoming aware of the human microbiome and its role in health, primary care physicians are faced with questions about probiotics as a possible strategy for maintaining health. Patients may see conflicting messages in the news and on product labels – so how can they know which probiotic benefits are scientifically proven?

A new publication in the Journal of Family Practice provides a quick update on evidence for the use of probiotics in different indications, so primary care physicians can equip themselves to provide evidence-based recommendations and to answer patients’ most commonly asked questions about probiotics.

Written by ISAPP board members Daniel J. Merenstein, MD and Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, along with Daniel J. Tancredi, PhD, the article provides practical advice in the form of practice recommendations, along with comments about safety data from numerous clinical trials.

As Dr. Merenstein stated, “We wrote this article for working clinicians. They are interested in the science but are busy and want a straightforward evidence-based resource. We are hopeful this will be a go-to resource during the busy clinic day.”

Verbatim from the article are the following practice recommendations:

  • Consider specific probiotics to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea, reduce crying time in colicky infants, and improve therapeutic effectiveness of antibiotics for bacterial vaginosis.
  • Consider specific probiotics to reduce the risk for Clostridioides (formerly Clostridium) difficile  infections, to treat acute  pediatric diarrhea, and to manage symptoms of constipation.
  • Check a product’s label to ensure that it includes the probiotic’s genus, species, and strains; the dose delivered in colony-forming units through the end of shelf life; and expected benefits.

The full text can be accessed by logging into Medscape.

A Miracle Treatment! Or Not?

By Daniel J. Merenstein, MD, Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Director of Research Programs, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington DC

Here’s a scenario for a physician: A drug rep walks into your office. She has a new product she wants to talk to you about. You are super excited to talk to her as you have heard all about this product from many other sources. The data that are being reported are amazing. There are hundreds if not many more case reports of it working. People were dying and then totally recovered after being given this product. It has been witnessed and published! The efficacy is well over 90%. You are not sure there is any intervention you have ever heard of that has such amazing efficacy.  She tells you that in some of the cases, the patients were very sick and despite numerous courses of antibiotics they did not improve until this new product was given. You ask for more information as you are starting to think this must be like when doctors first heard of penicillin.

The product can be taken orally but that is not the way it is generally given. She tells you that although there are 2-3 ways to administer, most hospitals are doing it the most expensive way now. (You later learn that the typical– and most expensive – approach to administering the product may not even be the best approach.) But you withhold judgement as this sounds exciting. And remember, you have been hearing all about this from so many different sources.

But as you listen, it gets a little confusing. She tells you that the makeup of the product is different in nearly every application. This makes it exciting to use, as one really never knows what is in it. It is also relatively cheap to obtain, as the patient can have a friend just bring it in for them.

Since you are trained in evidence-based medicine, you ask a few questions. It is exciting there are all sorts of case reports but what about the randomized controlled trials, and what does the FDA say about it? You ask if you can look at the trials—there is no way you can review hundreds of studies now but if she leaves them for you, you will look at them this weekend. But before she leaves you ask a few quick questions. How many of these studies are randomized? She says 10. How many use a placebo? She says 6. You tell her what you really want to do is review all the randomized placebo-controlled blinded studies, if she can just leave those.

Later in the week you go pick up the folder she left and right away are a little surprised at how light it is. It looks like there are only 3 randomized placebo-controlled blinded studies, only two of which are peer-reviewed and published. One was a positive study; overall, 91% of patients in the new drug group achieved clinical cure compared with 63% in the control group. But you realize this is not exactly a placebo-controlled trial. What they did is compare two types of the new application. Furthermore, this study was conducted at two sites and at one of the sites both the new application and the control had nearly identical rates of improvement, both over 90%. Okay so this was not a perfect study, only 46 total participants, but still pretty exciting with over 90% improvement.

The second study had three groups of 83 people. Group A (2 doses of new drug), B (2 doses of placebo) and C (1 dose of new drug and 1 placebo dose). The efficacy for these three groups was 61%, 45%, and 67%, respectively. The primary endpoint was not met (P = .152). Interestingly, Group C, which included one dose of placebo, was superior to all placebo (group B) but Group A, in which the drug was given two times, was not superior to placebo.

The third study, a Phase II trial, appears to not be peer-reviewed or published, but just reported online. However, it does appear this was far from a positive study, with 44% of subjects (26 of 59) who received the new application improving versus 53% of subjects (16 of 30) who received placebo. I have been told that this study will be published soon and that a Phase III study of this intervention was also undertaken.

Well now you are getting a little more confused. You have heard from fellow docs, the lay press, medical literature and the drug rep that this new application was over 90% effective. But it appears in the three reasonably well controlled studies, the ones from which we can really draw conclusions, only one was positive and in that study the control was not a real placebo.

Besides efficacy, you remember that one has to always consider the cost and adverse events. Maybe this new application is like recommending the Mediterranean Diet, where the efficacy from studies is limited but the adverse events are nearly non-existent. But when you do a quick PubMed search you learn that this is far from the case with this product. This application has been reported to cause very serious adverse events, including extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL)–producing Escherichia coli bacteremia resulting in one death. You look online expecting that the FDA must have some serious warnings about this new drug. You don’t find any such warnings.

You may have guessed that the product is in fact a Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT). Besides having a professional interest in this much-discussed treatment, I have a personal interest. Last year my son was in a Johns Hopkins Hospital with a central line and two broad-spectrum antibiotics for a bone infection. I asked them to provide him with probiotics since the number needed to treat to prevent pediatric antibiotic associated diarrhea is 9, per a 2019 Cochrane review. This review included 20 randomized, placebo-controlled studies of a single strain. However, I was told no Hopkins hospital will administer probiotics, and further, that we could not even bring in our own because of concerns for the safety of others. But no worries – if my son got recurrent C. diff infection, Hopkins would allow this great new procedure, FMT.

In medicine I cannot truly imagine a probiotic with the same evidence base as FMT receiving such widespread acceptance and escaping regulatory scrutiny. And currently used probiotics have an excellent safety record. Just imagine, if this were a new drug being sold there would be widespread condemnation of the attempt to get approval mainly based on anecdotal case reports.  Shockingly, based on the level of evidence I have described many experts now think a randomized placebo-controlled trial is not even ethical for the placebo group, as of course they know FMT works.

It is a quandary. I am not opposed to FMT; I find it fascinating. But why has it been so widely accepted and why has the FDA, which in general has been very careful with probiotic applications in medicine, allowed this to proceed for recurrent C diff infection with only enforcement discretion? Both treatments administer live microorganisms, one with 31 placebo controlled randomized trials, including 8672 subjects [of C. diff prevention (number needed to prevent=42), not treatment like FMT], the other with pretty limited data.  I have my thoughts, but better for you to ponder it.

Additional related content:

Webinar presenting current level of evidence for FMT: FECAL MICROBIOTA TRANSPLANTATION, AM I SURE IT WORKS? Oct 29, 2020. Presented by Prof. Daniel Merenstein, introduced by Prof. Hania Szajewska, sponsored by Centro Studi Scientifici, La Marcigliana.

 

 

 

thumbnail of Clinical Guide Canada 2018

Updated Clinical Guide to Probiotics Now Available

Want some guidance on knowing which probiotic products have been tested for which clinical benefits, and understand the level of evidence supporting those benefits? Check out the 2018 versions of Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in USA and Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in Canada. Currently, these are the only 2 geographical regions covered by this initiative, although they are considering expanding to other regions. This guide is updated annually. Some changes for 2018 include addition of new indications ‘Mood and affect’, ‘Liver health’, ‘Weight management’ (Canada) and ‘Seasonal allergies’ and ‘Eczema/Dermatitis-Adult’ (United States). Evidence is reviewed independently by six academic experts and graded as Level I (highest), II or III. A grade of Level I requires evidence from at least one properly designed randomized human trial. This guide is produced by the Alliance for Education on Probiotics, and is an industry funded effort (see industry sponsors for US and Canadian versions).