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How some probiotic scientists are working to address COVID-19

By ISAPP board of directors

With the global spread of COVID-19, the scientific community has experienced an unusual interruption. Across every field, many laboratories are temporarily shuttered and research programs of all sizes are on hiatus. Principal investigators around the world are doing their part to keep their students and local communities safe, and many are donating lab safety equipment to medical first responders who urgently need it.

In this global circumstance of research being put on hold, it is enlightening to consider what some scientists in the fields of probiotics, prebiotics, and fermented foods are working on—or proposing—in the context of understanding ways to combat viral threats. These individuals are rising to the scientific challenge of finding effective ways to prevent or treat viral infections, which may directly or indirectly contribute to progress against SARS-CoV-2.

Here, ISAPP shares words from some of these scientists—and how they have connected the dots from probiotics to coronavirus-related work with potential medical relevance.

Prof. Sarah Lebeer, University of Antwerp, Belgium: Relevance of the airway microbiome profile to COVID-19 respiratory infection and using certain lactobacilli to enhance delivery or efficacy of vaccines

Could the microbes in our upper and lower airways play a role in how we respond to the virus? Significant individual differences exist in the microbes that are prevalent and dominant in our airways. Lactobacilli are found in the respiratory tract, especially in the nasopharynx. They might originate there from the oral cavity via the oronasopharynx, but we have found some strains that seem to be more adapted to the respiratory environment, for example by expressing catalase enzymes to withstand oxidative stress. Currently we have a Cell Reports paper in press that shows certain lactobacilli are more prevalent in the upper respiratory tract of healthy people compared to those with chronic rhinosinusitis. Further investigation of one strain found in healthy people showed it inhibited growth and virulence of several upper respiratory tract pathogens. Our work on other viruses shows that certain lactobacilli can even block the attachment of viral particles to human cells. This raises the possibility that lactobacilli could be supplemented through a local spray to help improve defenses against the inhaled virus. Based on these data, we are initiating an exploratory study with clinicians and virologists on whether specific strains of lactobacilli in the nasopharynx and oropharynx could have potential to reduce viral activity via a multifactorial mode of action, including barrier-enhancing and anti-inflammatory effects, and reduce the risk of secondary bacterial infections in COVID-19.

Another line of exploratory research from our lab pertains to the delivery or efficacy of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. Currently, many groups are rapidly developing vaccines, which predominantly use the viral spike S protein or its receptor-binding domain as antigen to induce protective immunity. We are exploring the potential of specific strains of lactobacilli with immunostimulatory effects as adjuvants for intranasal SARS-CoV-2 vaccination, or the potential of a genetically engineered antigen-producing organism for vaccine delivery.

At this year’s virtual ISAPP annual meeting, Dr. Karen Scott and I will also be leading an ISAPP discussion group called “How your gut microbiota can help protect against viral infections”. We will discuss previous work that has shown bacteria can have anti-viral effects. For many years, our colleagues, Profs. Hania Szajewska and Seppo Salminen, have studied a different virus, namely rotavirus, that causes acute diarrhea in children, and have found that Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (new taxonomy Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus GG) binds rotavirus and disables it, thereby blocking viral infection/multiplication. This may explain why this probiotic reduces the incidence and duration of acute diarrhea in children. Similar findings have been reported for specific probiotics and prebiotics and prevention of upper respiratory tract infections.

Prof. Rodolphe Barrangou, North Carolina State University, USA: Engineering probiotic lactobacilli for vaccine development

Between NC State University and Colorado State University (CSU) there is a historical collaborative effort aiming at engineering probiotics to develop novel vaccines. The intersection of probiotics and antivirals is the focus here with expressing antigens on the cell surface of probiotics to develop oral vaccines. The CSU infectious diseases center is very much fully operational and focused on COVID-19 now, and we recently received a research exception to open our lab for two individuals assigned to this NIH-funded project, and pivot our rotavirus efforts here to coronavirus. We are actively engineering Lactobacillus acidophilus probiotics expressing COVID-19 proteins to be tested as potential vaccines at CSU in the near future, as progress dictates.

Prof. Colin Hill, University College Cork, Ireland: The microbiome as a predictor of COVID-19 outcomes

We have recently proposed a project to examine oral and faecal microbiomes to identify correlations/associations between COVID-19 disease severity and individual microbiome profiles. If funded, we propose to analyse bacterial and viral components of the microbiome from three body sites (nasopharyngeal swabs, saliva, and faeces) in 200 donors and mine the data for biomarkers of disease risk and clinical severity. We will use machine learning to identify microbiome signatures in patients who contract the virus and remain asymptomatic, those who develop a mild infection, or those who have an acute infection requiring admission to an intensive care unit and intubation. This will enable microbiome-based risk stratification of subjects testing positive, and appropriate clinical management and early intervention, and prioritization of subjects for receiving an eventual vaccine.

Dr. Dinesh Saralaya, Bradford Institute for Health Research, UK: A live biotherapeutic product for targeted immunomodulation in COVID-19 infection

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to our healthcare systems and we desperately require the rapid development of new therapies to ease the burden on our intensive care units. As well as its appropriate mechanism of action (targeted immunomodulation rather than broad immunosuppression), the highly favourable safety profile of MRx-4DP0004 makes it a particularly attractive candidate for COVID-19 patients, and may potentially allow us to prevent or delay their progression to requiring ventilation and intensive care.

The trial is a Phase II randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to evaluate the efficacy and safety of oral Live Biotherapeutic MRx-4DP0004 in addition to standard supportive care for hospitalised COVID-19 patients. Up to 90 subjects will be randomised 2:1 to receive either MRx-4DP0004 or placebo (two capsules, twice daily) for 14 days. The primary endpoint is change in mean clinical status score as measured by the WHO’s 9-point Ordinal Scale for Clinical Improvement, while secondary endpoints include a suite of additional measures of clinical efficacy such as need for and duration of ventilation, time to discharge, mortality, as well as safety and tolerability. The size and design of the trial are intended to generate a meaningful signal of clinical benefit as rapidly as possible.

Drs. Paul Wischmeyer and Anthony Sung, Duke University School of Medicine, USA: Probiotics for prevention or treatment of COVID-19 infection

We are planning several randomized clinical trials of probiotics in COVID-19 prevention and treatment. These trials are based on multiple randomized clinical trials and meta-analyses that have shown that prophylaxis with probiotics may reduce upper and lower respiratory tract infections, sepsis, and ventilator associated pneumonia by 30-50%. These benefits may be mediated by the beneficial effects of probiotics on the immune system. The Wischmeyer laboratory and others have shown that probiotics, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, can improve intestinal/lung barrier and homeostasis, increase regulatory T cells, improve anti-viral defense, and decrease pro-inflammatory cytokines in respiratory and systemic infections. These clinical and immunomodulatory benefits are especially relevant to individuals who have developed, or are at risk of developing, COVID-19. COVID-19 has been characterized by severe lower respiratory tract illness, and patients may manifest an excessive inflammatory response similar to cytokine release syndrome, which has been associated with increased complications and mortality. We hypothesize that probiotics will directly reduce COVID-19 infection risk and severity of disease/symptoms. Thus, we are proposing a range of trials, the first of which will be:

A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial of the PRObiotics To Eliminate COVID-19 Transmission in Exposed Household Contacts (PROTECT-EHC). Objective: Prevent infection and progression of illness in household contacts/caregivers of known COVID-19 patients exposed to COVID-19 (who have a >20-fold increased risk of infection). We will conduct a multicenter, randomized, double blind, phase 2 trial of the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG vs. placebo to decrease infections and improve outcomes. This trial will include weekly collection of microbiome samples from multiple locations (i.e. fecal, oral). This trial will utilize a commercial probiotic, delivering 20 billion CFU of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and placebo.

We are currently developing protocols to study prevention and treatment of COVID-19 in a range of other at-risk populations including: 1) Healthcare providers; 2) Hospitalized patients; 3) Nursing home and skilled nursing facilities workers. We are seeking additional funding and potential collaborators/trial sites for this work, and encourage interested funders and collaborators to reach out for further information or to join the effort at: Paul.Wischmeyer@nullduke.edu and also encourage you to follow our progress and our other probiotic/microbiome work on Twitter: @paul_wischmeyer

Prof. Gregor Reid, University of Western Ontario, Canada: Documenting anti-viral mechanisms of certain probiotic strains

While our institute is now studying the cytokine storm in COVID-19 patients, the closure of my lab has meant I have turned to surveying the literature: Prof. Glenn Gibson and I have a paper published in Frontiers in Public Health stating a case for probiotics and prebiotics to help ‘flatten the curve’ and keep patients from progressing to severe illness. There is good evidence that certain orally administered probiotic strains can reduce the incidence and severity of viral respiratory tract infections. Mechanistically this appears to be, in part, through modulation of inflammatory responses similar to those causing severe illness in COVID-2 patients, and antiviral activity — which has not been shown against SARS-Co-V2 but has been documented against common respiratory viruses, including influenza, rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus. Improving gut barrier integrity and affecting the gut-lung axis may also be part of these probiotics’ mechanism of action. At a time when drugs are being tried with little or no anti-COVID-19 data, probiotic strains documented for anti-viral, immunomodulatory and respiratory activities should be considered for clinical trials to be part of the armamentarium to reduce the burden and severity of this pandemic.

Rapid, collaborative effort

As the world waits in ‘lockdown’ mode, continued scientific progress for coronavirus prevention or treatment is critically important. ISAPP salutes all probiotic and prebiotic scientists who are stepping up to pursue unique solutions. Addressing the important research questions described above will require a rapid collaborative effort, from obtaining ethical approval and involving medical staff to collecting the samples, to recruiting participants as well as experts to process and analyze samples. All of this has to be done in record time – but from our experience of this scientific community, it’s definitely up to the challenge.

New names for important probiotic Lactobacillus species

By Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, and Sarah Lebeer, PhD

The genus Lactobacillus was listed as the fifth most important category of living organism to have influenced the planet throughout its evolutionary history in a 2009 book, What on Earth Evolved?. From their central role in food fermentations around the globe to their ability to benefit health in their human and animal hosts, species of Lactobacillus have great importance in our lives.

But for the past several decades there’s been a problem brewing with this genus. Using the research tools available at the time, researchers through history who discovered new bacteria grouped many diverse species under the “umbrella” of the genus Lactobacillus. Since the naming of the first Lactobacillus species, Lactobacillus delbrueckii, in 1901, microbial taxonomists assigned over 250 species to this genus.

These species were a diverse group, and when DNA analysis tools became more sophisticated, many were found to be only loosely related. A consensus grew among scientific experts that, given the genetic makeup of these bacteria, the current Lactobacillus genus was too diverse and did not conform to nomenclature conventions. Moreover, it was important to split the genus into functionally relevant groups that shared certain physiological, metabolic properties and lifestyles in order to facilitate functional and ecological studies on bacteria from this genus.

To tackle this problem, 15 scientists (see below) from 12 different institutions and 7 different countries came together, applying whole genome analysis to analyze each Lactobacillus species. Their proposal, which was accepted for publication in the official journal of record for bacterial names, is that the species once contained within the Lactobacillus genus should now spread over 25 genera, including 23 novel genera (see paper link here).

Based on this polyphasic approach, the authors reclassified the genus Lactobacillus into 25 genera including the emended genus Lactobacillus, which includes host-adapted organisms that have been referred to as the L. delbrueckii group; Paralactobacillus; as well as 23 novel genera: Acetilactobacillus, Agrilactobacillus, Amylolactobacillus, Apilactobacillus, Bombilactobacillus, Companilactobacillus, Dellaglioa, Fructilactobacillus, Furfurilactobacillus, Holzapfelia, Lacticaseibacillus, Lactiplantibacillus, Lapidilactobacillus, Latilactobacillus, Lentilactobacillus, Levilactobacillus, Ligilactobacillus, Limosilactobacillus, Liquorilactobacillus, Loigolactobacilus, Paucilactobacillus, Schleiferilactobacillus, and Secundilactobacillus.

While genus names have changed in some cases, the parts of the names that indicate species were not changed. See the table below for some examples of how names of important probiotic lactobacilli have changed. Note that all new genera proposed for this group begin with the letter “L”. Thus, the ‘L.’ genus abbreviation may still be used.

Because of the importance of this genus and the implications of the name change for both science and industry, the researchers involved in this project have developed a web-based tool that makes it very easy to determine the new names of all Lactobacillus species.

Scientifically, one exciting outcome of these new taxonomic groupings is that species that are more closely related, and therefore are more likely to share physiological traits, are grouped into the same genus. This may facilitate our understanding of common mechanisms that may mediate health benefits, as described in an ISAPP consensus paper and a publication entitled “Shared mechanisms among probiotic taxa: implications for general probiotic claims”.

To date, bacteria in the group Bifidobacterium have not changed, but nomenclature changes are expected soon for this genus, too.

The Lactobacillus taxonomy changes are summarized in this ISAPP infographic for scientists and in this ISAPP infographic for consumers.

Names of important Lactobacillus probiotic species

The following chart lists the new names for some prominent Lactobacillus probiotic species. (Note: All new genera proposed for this group begin with the letter “L”, so abbreviated genus/species – such as L. rhamnosus – remain unchanged.)

 

Current name New name
Lactobacillus casei Lacticaseibacillus casei
Lactobacillus paracasei Lacticaseibacillus paracasei
Lactobacillus rhamnosus Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus
Lactobacillus plantarum Lactiplantibacillus plantarum
Lactobacillus brevis Levilactobacillus brevis
Lactobacillus salivarius Ligilactobacillus salivarius
Lactobacillus fermentum Limosilactobacillus fermentum
Lactobacillus reuteri Limosilactobacillus reuteri
Lactobacillus acidophilus Unchanged
Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus

(aka Lactobacillus bulgaricus)

Unchanged
Lactobacillus crispatus Unchanged
Lactobacillus gasseri Unchanged
Lactobacillus johnsonii Unchanged
Lactobacillus helveticus Unchanged

Authors

  • Jinshui Zheng, Huazhong Agricultural University, State Key Laboratory of Agricultural Microbiology, Hubei Key Laboratory of Agricultural Bioinformatics, Wuhan, Hubei, P.R. China.
  • Stijn Wittouck, Research Group Environmental Ecology and Applied Microbiology, Department of Bioscience Engineering, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
  • Elisa Salvetti, Dept. of Biotechnology, University of Verona, Verona, Italy
  • Charles M.A.P. Franz, Max Rubner-Institut, Department of Microbiology and Biotechnology, Kiel, Germany
  • Hugh M.B. Harris, School of Microbiology & APC Microbiome Ireland, University College Cork, Co. Cork, Ireland
  • Paola Mattarelli, University of Bologna, Dept. of Agricultural and Food Sciences, Bologna, Italy
  • Paul W. O’Toole, School of Microbiology & APC Microbiome Ireland, University College Cork, Co. Cork, Ireland
  • Bruno Pot, Research Group of Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology (IMDO), Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
  • Peter Vandamme, Laboratory of Microbiology, Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
  • Jens Walter, Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada; Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
  • Koichi Watanabe, National Taiwan University, Dept. of Animal Science and Technology, Taipei, Taiwan R.O.C.; Food Industry Research and Development Institute, Bioresource Collection and Research Center, Hsinchu, Taiwan R.O.C.
  • Sander Wuyts, Research Group Environmental Ecology and Applied Microbiology, Department of Bioscience Engineering, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
  • Giovanna E. Felis, Dept. of Biotechnology, University of Verona, Verona, Italy
  • Michael G. Gänzle, Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada; Hubei University of Technology, College of Bioengineering and Food Science, Wuhan, Hubei, P.R. China.
  • Sarah Lebeer, Research Group Environmental Ecology and Applied Microbiology, Department of Bioscience Engineering, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.

See ISAPP’s press release on the Lactobacillus name changes here.

Highlighting the importance of lactic acid bacteria: An interview with Prof. Seppo Salminen

By Kristina Campbell, M.Sc., science & medical writer

 

In a 2009 book called What on Earth Evolved?, British author Christopher Lloyd takes on the task of ranking the top 100 species that have influenced the planet throughout its evolutionary history.

What comes in at number 5, just slightly more influential than Homo sapiens? Lactobacilli, a diverse group of lactic-acid-producing bacteria.

The influential status of these bacteria on a global scale comes as no surprise to Prof. Seppo Salminen, ISAPP president and Professor at University of Turku (Finland), who has spent most of his career studying these microbes. He is the co-editor of the best-selling textbook Lactic Acid Bacteria: Microbiological and Functional Aspects, the fifth edition of which was released earlier this year. Salminen says the scientific community has come a long way in its understanding of lactic acid bacteria (LAB)—and in particular, lactobacilli.

Seppo Salminen at ISAPP annual meeting 2019

“If you think about the history of humankind, earlier on, more than 60% of the food supply was fermented,” explains Salminen. “On a daily basis, humans would have consumed many, many lactic acid bacteria.”

Yet 30 years ago when Salminen and his colleagues published the first edition of the textbook on lactic acid bacteria, they were working against perceptions that bacteria were universally harmful. The science on using live microorganisms to achieve health benefits was still emerging.

“Most people in food technology, they had learned how to kill bacteria but not how to keep them alive,” he explains. “They didn’t yet know how to add them to different formulations in foods and what sort of carrier they need. At that time, the safety and efficacy of probiotics was not well understood.”

Around ten years later, scientists came together to develop a definition of probiotics on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the WHO (FAO/WHO)—in a report that formed the basis of ISAPP Consensus meeting and today’s international consensus definition: “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.

With probiotics having been more precisely defined, the following years were a time of rapid scientific progress in the field. Lactobacilli became the stars of the show, as research emerged on the benefits of various strains and combinations of strains in food science and medicine.

Fast forward to today, when rapidly expanding gut microbiome research adds another dimension to what we know about these bacteria. While lactic acid bacteria are still primarily of interest for the health benefits they impart, scientists can now also study their interactions with other microorganisms in the intestinal microbiome. In some cases, this kind of research may help uncover new mechanisms of action.

After everything Salminen and his textbook co-editors (Vinderola, Ouwehand, and von Wright) have learned about lactic acid bacteria over the past few decades, Salminen says there are two main reasons for the perennial importance of the bugs. “One is their importance in food fermentation, extending the shelf life of foods, making a kind of food processing or ‘agricultural processing’ possible. To make sauerkraut shelf-stable for weeks, or to make yogurt or cheese.”

The second reason, he says, relates to their benefits for the host. “Lactic acid bacteria, especially lactobacilli, reinforce intestinal integrity. So they protect us against pathogens; and sometimes against toxins and heavy metals by binding them away.”

He continues, “The more we know, the more we understand that LAB are needed. There are very specific strains that are helpful in different conditions for animal feeds or for clinical nutrition for infants, for example.” He says the knowledge is expanding at such a rapid pace that it may only be a few more years before the textbook he co-edited will need another edition.

Salminen is currently one of the world’s most cited probiotic researchers, and has diverse ongoing research projects related to digestive health, eczema, early life, and nutrition economics—but lactic acid bacteria are the thread that weaves everything together.

“I’m proud to be working on the fifth most important factor in human evolution,” he says.