ISAPP’s 2019 annual meeting in Antwerp, Belgium: Directions in probiotic & prebiotic innovation

Kristina Campbell, Microbiome science writer, Victoria, British Columbia

We live in a time when a simple Google search for ‘probiotics’ produces over 56.8 million hits; a time when almost everyone has heard of probiotics through one channel or another, and when an ever-increasing variety of probiotic and prebiotic products is available in different regions of the world.

The next five to ten years will be telling: will probiotics and prebiotics join the ranks of other trendy health products that experienced a wave of popularity before something else took their place? Or will they be recognized as important contributors to health through the lifespan, and establish a permanent position in the clinical armamentarium?

According to the global group of 175 academic and industry scientists who met for the ISAPP annual meeting in Antwerp (Belgium) May 14-16, 2019, one thing above all is necessary for the world to recognize the significance of probiotics and prebiotics for health: scientific innovation. Not only are technological capabilities advancing quickly, but also, new products are being evaluated by better-educated consumers who demand more transparency about the health benefits of their probiotics and prebiotics.

Participants in the ISAPP conference came together to talk about some of the leading innovations in the world of probiotics and prebiotics. Here are three of the broad themes that emerged:

Better health through the gut-brain axis

Gut-brain axis research is rapidly growing, with many investigators in search of probiotic and prebiotic substances capable of modulating brain function in meaningful ways. Phil Burnett of Oxford (UK) presented on “Prebiotics, brain function and stress: To what extent will prebiotics replace or complement drug therapy for mental health?”. Burnett approached the challenge by administering prebiotics to healthy adults and giving them a battery of psychological tests; in one experiment he found people who consumed a prebiotic (versus placebo) showed benefits that included reduced salivary cortisol and positively altered emotional bias. For those with diagnosed brain disorders, Burnett concludes from the available data that prebiotics have potential anxiolytic and pro-cognitive effects in these populations, and that prebiotics may eventually be used to complement the established treatments for some mental disorders.

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are of interest as potential modulators of brain function, but so far very little research has been carried out in this area. Kristin Verbeke of Leuven (Belgium) gave a talk entitled “Short-chain fatty acids as mediators of human health”, which covered the extent to which interventions with fermentable carbohydrates can alter systemic SCFA concentrations (rather than gut SCFA concentrations)—since the former are more relevant to effects on the brain.

Also, a students and fellows feature talk by Caitlin Cowan of Cork (Ireland) explored a role for the microbiota in psychological effects of early stress. She spoke on the topic “A probiotic formulation reverses the effects of maternal separation on neural circuits underpinning fear expression and extinction in infant rats”.

A clear definition of synbiotics

Immediately before the main ISAPP meeting, a group of experts met to propose a consensus definition of ‘synbiotic’, with the objective of clarifying for stakeholders a scientifically valid approach for the use of the increasingly-popular term. A key point of discussion was whether the probiotic and prebiotic substances that make up a synbiotic are complementary or synergistic. And if the two substances have already been tested separately, must they be tested in combination to give evidence of their health effect? The group’s conclusions, which will undoubtedly steer the direction of future R&D programs, will be published in a forthcoming article in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

Probiotics and prebiotics for pediatric populations

Probiotics and prebiotics have been studied for their health benefits in pediatric populations for many years, but in this area scientists appear to have a renewed interest in exploring new solutions. Maria Carmen Collado of Valencia (Spain) covered “Probiotic use at conception and during gestation”, explaining some of the most promising directions for improving infant health through maternal consumption of probiotics.

In recent years, technical advancements have made possible the large-scale production of some human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs); it is now an option to administer them to infants. Evelyn Jantscher-Krenn of Graz (Austria) presented a novel perspective on HMOs, with “HMOs in pregnancy: Roles for maternal and infant health”, giving a broad overview of the many ways in which HMOs might signal health status and how they might be fine-tuned throughout a woman’s pregnancy.

A discussion group on “prebiotic applications in children”, chaired by Dr. Michael Cabana of San Francisco (USA) and Gigi Veereman of Brussels (Belgium), discussed evidence-based uses of prebiotics in children in three areas: (1) prevention of chronic disease; (2) treatment of disease; and (3) growth and development. While the latter category has the best support at present (specifically for bone development, calcium absorption, and stool softening), the other two areas may be ripe for more research and innovation. The chairs are preparing a review that covers the outcomes of this discussion group.

Next year in Banff

ISAPP’s next annual meeting is open to scientists from its member companies and will be held on June 2-4, 2020 in Banff, Canada.


Photo by Copyright, ISAPP 2019.

brain-gut relationship illustration

Bugs on the Brain: the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

September 2017. By Eamonn M. M. Quigley, Chief Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Houston Methodist Hospital and Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, Houston, Texas, USA.

We can all remember those instances of diarrhea (or at least frequent bowel movements) and “butterflies” that we suffered before a critical test, interview or presentation. These are examples of stress originating from the brain influencing gut function. Extensive research over the past several decades has revealed that this is a two-way street – the gut constantly signals to the brain, too. This bidirectional channel of communication between the “big brain” in the cranium and the “little brain” (i.e. the enteric nervous system) in the gut came to be referred to as the gut-brain axis. This link relies on neurons of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, as well as circulating hormones and other neuromodulatory molecules.

We now understand that mental symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression have a clinical impact on the gut. These include situations where the brain, the gut and their channel of communication, the autonomic nervous system, are affected by the same pathologic process. Parkinson’s disease is a prime example. Indeed, a hypothesis has evolved to suggest that Parkinson’s disease actually originates in the gut and ascends to the brain. Other scenarios include those instances where neurologic symptoms are a consequence of a primarily gastrointestinal pathology. This occurs in malabsorption syndromes when nutrients such as folic acid and B12, which are critical to brain function, become deficient. Finally, and most commonly, are those situations such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) where it is widely believed that symptoms result from dysfunction or disturbance somewhere along the gut-brain axis. In some individuals the problem may lie primarily in the gut; in others the main issues may be a distorted representation of gut stimuli in the brain.

Recently the concept of the gut-brain axis has been extended to include the microbiota (the microbiota-gut-brain axis) and tantalizing evidence suggests that bacteria resident in the gut could have an impact on the “big brain”. Indeed, some researchers have raced ahead to suggest that assessing alterations in the microbiome could assist in the diagnosis of a host of neurological disorders and that therapies targeted at the microbiome could play a central role in disorders as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism, stroke, depression and drug addiction.

We should remember that the microbiota-gut-brain axis is far from a novel concept as it was clearly described over 60 years ago with research on hepatic coma. Metabolic products of gut bacteria lead to this much feared complication of advanced liver disease and an intervention targeted at the microbiome, namely, the administration of antibiotics, was shown to be dramatically effective. In these pioneering studies the role of bacterial overgrowth in the small bowel by coliforms and other bacteria, which are normally confined to the colon, was found to be important. Subsequently, these same bacteria and the inflammatory response that they evoke have been incriminated in the pathophysiology of another common consequence of chronic liver disease, portal hypertension, as well as in other complications such as spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, systemic sepsis and hemostatic failure. Indeed, there are several manifestations of this tripartite resonance between microbiota, the liver and the central nervous system. Gut health factors such as small bowel bacterial overgrowth, an abnormal microbiota, impaired gut barrier function, a pro-inflammatory state and the appearance in the systemic circulation of neuro-active molecules generated by bacterial metabolism are all postulated to play important roles in the actual pathogenesis of a number of common liver diseases. So what is new?

From the basic science laboratories and a variety of animal models a pretty coherent message has emerged. Firstly, the microbiome can influence brain development, structure and function and lead to changes in cognition and behavior. Secondly, the manipulation of the microbiome – for example, with probiotics – can ameliorate certain brain disorders and reverse impaired function. Thirdly, the inoculation of microbiota samples from individuals with a number of neuropsychiatric disorders into animal models can recapitulate features of the human disease. So far so good.

As always, extrapolation from animal studies to humans is fraught with difficulties: differences between animal and human brains and microbiota, the limitations of animal models of psychiatric and functional bowel disorders, and, above all, the challenges of studying brain function in humans. The good news is that these challenges are being addressed. Researchers are utilizing various technologies that provide dynamic images of brain function in various parts of the brain in response to a variety of situations, stimuli and exposures. These are now beginning to provide evidence that our microbiota can influence brain function and that the gut microbiota might, indeed, be a therapeutic target for patients with disorders such as depression, Parkinson’s disease and autism. Data are preliminary and certainly not at a stage where we can offer diagnostic testing based on a fecal sample or recommend antibiotics, prebiotics, probiotics or fecal microbiota transplantation for a given neuropsychiatric disease or disorder. But watch this space!