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.

“A healthy woman, a healthy baby, a healthy generation” lessons learned from the 4th Annual Women and their Microbes Conference

By Dr. Mariya Petrova, Microbiome insights and Probiotics Consultancy, Bulgaria

The 4th annual Women and their Microbes conference took place at the beginning of March celebrating the International Women’s day. The first-ever conference outside Europe in Hamilton, Canada brought together top scientists to discuss the importance of women’s health through the prism of women’s specific microbiomes. The theme of the conference was Microbiome Management in Pregnancy with a uniquely designed high-quality program translating the latest research into the clinical setting. I was honored to serve on the organizing committee for this meeting, and I provide highlights below.

Our health starts long before birth. The developing fetus receives information from the mother in the form of hormones and nutrients and uses these to predict the external environment. The fetus then uses this information to adapt its development to better its chances of survival after birth. However, the developing fetus can be “misinformed.” This happens through the maternal factors such as her use of drugs, stress, and diseases such as obesity and asthma. For example, both absolute maternal weight and weight gain during pregnancy affect microbiota development in infants (Carmen Collado et al., 2010). Maternal microbiota can also shape the immune system of the newborns. Therefore, keeping women on the right course before pregnancy and healthy during pregnancy must be a priority. This will later be translated into a healthier life for the infant through adulthood. Many of us associate healthy pregnancy with women taking the right nutrients and minerals such as folic acid, B12 vitamins, and iron and we are not wrong. But microbes also play an essential role in health. Microbes are a crucial factor providing nutrients, immune protection and regulating host physiology. Particular strains of Lactobacillus sp. and Bifidobacteria sp. can produce vitamin B12 and folic acid in the gut (Magnusdottir et al., 2015), which may be very beneficial during pregnancy. Of interest, this production increases when paired with prebiotics. Not only that, but microbes are increasingly recognized as important in reproduction, pregnancy, and development. Fertilization doesn’t happen in a sterile environment. Distinct bacterial communities are present in the female reproductive tract, but semen health and male fertility are also important (Weng et al., 2014). So don’t forget the “Y” in the equation – fathers also play a role in the health of their offspring. Gestational tissue microbes can also play an important role in development. More research is needed to better understand these microbiomes and the extent to which they can be influenced by maternal diet and health state.

What if the things go wrong – adverse pregnancy outcomes. Preterm birth is an ongoing challenge with rates steadily growing and with limited approaches for prevention. It results in 75% of neonatal morbidity and mortality. High numbers (55-80 %) of preterm births are associated with dysbiosis and a shift of the vaginal microbiota towards a more diverse state (Freitas et al., 2018). It seems likely that the vaginal microbiome can protect against adverse pregnancy outcomes. However, it appears that both antibiotics and probiotic therapy used to date are not effective at preventing preterm birth. “How to prevent adverse pregnancy outcomes?” is a million dollar question. We need a highly discriminatory diagnostic test that defines versions of ‘abnormal’ vaginal microbiomes. This test needs to be significantly associated with adverse health outcomes. The type of abnormal profile that results in preterm birth needs to be distinguishable from other possible ‘abnormal’ profiles. Such a diagnostic tool needs to be simple enough for a clinical environment and cost-effective. We need to have a safe intervention that can ‘treat’ or normalize a microbiome ideally preconception or early pregnancy.

Where do probiotics fit? Probiotics and prebiotics can enhance the nutrient status of the mother via increasing micronutrient and mineral absorption. During pregnancy, about 3.6% of North American women, 14% of The Netherlands women and 23% of Australian women consume probiotics. A lot of studies focus on the role of probiotics for preventing Group B Streptococcus infections, maternal obesities, postpartum depression, and mastitis. Although results are promising, more studies are needed to make clear conclusions and select the best strains for each condition. Importantly, currently used probiotics do not appear to pose safety concerns for pregnant and lactating women. Nevertheless, consumers’ knowledge regarding probiotics is not very precise. This confusion often may stem from a probiotic market with many different manufacturers, some of which are not legitimate, selling products that are not well defined, with very little clinical evidence. A major effort in educating clinicians, pharmacists and the consumers has been made by creating probiotic guidelines. Dragana Skokovic Sunjic has been working in the last ten years in publishing and updating the “probiotic chart.” The probiotic chart summarizes commercially available probiotic supplements or foods sold in Canada or the USA that have published clinical evidence for the particular strain(s) present in each product. Of note, for products containing multiple strains, evidence must be provided for the specified combination and not extrapolated from the evidence for the separate probiotic strains. At present these guidelines are used by primary care providers, specialists (pediatrics, GI), academic teaching hospitals, universities and others.

With the increasing number of microbiome studies, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the scientific literature with more people focusing on the importance of microbes in human health. Women’s health is a cornerstone for successful reproduction, with important implications for the health of the next generation. Initiatives such as Women and their Microbes are crucial to link the science and medicine together to bring awareness within the healthcare and academic community.