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The future is microbial: A post-pandemic focus on identifying microbes and metabolites that support health

By Prof. Maria Marco, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California Davis, USA

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a sobering reminder of the significance that microorganisms have on human life. Despite the tremendous scientific and medical advances of the twentieth century, our best precautions against the virus have been to practice the oldest and most simplistic of all public health measures such as washing hands and maintaining physical distance from others. At the same time, the effectiveness of the new SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and the speed in which they were developed show how sophisticated and advanced our understanding of viruses has become. Taken together, the limitations and successes of responses to the pandemic underscore the power of investment in microbiology research. This research, which was first catalyzed by the pioneering work of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and contemporaries in the late 1800s, was the basis for the overall reduction in infectious diseases during the twentieth century. Continued investment in these efforts will prepare us for the next pandemic threat.

Beyond pathogens to health-promoting microbes

As our attention turns to the promise of the New Year, we may also take this moment to appreciate the fact that microorganisms can also do good. Our “microbial friends” were first promoted by the lauded biologists Élie Metchnikoff, Henry Tissier, and Issac Kendall at the turn of the twentieth century. Since then, nearly another century passed before the power of microorganisms to benefit human health reached wider acceptance.

Marked by the emergence of laboratory culture-independent, nucleic-acid based methods to study microbial communities, there is now excitement in the identification of microorganisms that are important for health promotion. This interest is catalyzed by the urgency to find ways to prevent and treat cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and other non-communicable, chronic conditions that are now the leading causes of death worldwide. Much like the pressure to address infectious diseases as the primary cause of mortality prior to the twentieth century, so too is the need today for sustained research investments in studying how certain microorganisms contribute to, or may be essential for, preventing and treating the greatest threats to public health in the modern era.

Exemplified by the growing number of human microbiome studies, it is now broadly understood that the human microbiome contributes positively to digestive, immune, and endocrine systems function. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of clinical trials support the use of probiotics for a variety of conditions and there are positive associations between the consumption of fermented dairy foods and good metabolic health. To understand how microbes can be beneficial, numerous mechanisms have been proposed (for example, modulation of the immune system and production of neurochemicals that can impact the gut-brain axis), and these mechanisms apply to both autochthonous microbiota and probiotics alike. However, our understanding of exactly how this occurs lags far behind what is currently known about microorganisms that cause harm.

Identifying microbes & metabolites that maintain health

The future of beneficial microbes is in identifying the specific, health-promoting metabolites, proteins, and other compounds that they make. Presently only a handful of such examples are known. Perhaps most recognized are the short chain fatty acids, butyrate, propionate, and acetate, which are known to bind specific human cell receptors to modulate numerous cell pathways including those that affect metabolism. Other microbial compounds generated as intermediate or end products of microbial metabolism (such as metabolites of amino acids), secondary metabolites (such as bacteriocins), and bacterial cell surface constituents (such as certain membrane proteins) were shown to benefit health, although a more complete description of mechanistic details for their effects remains to be discovered. Precise mechanistic descriptions of “beneficial factors”, or the microbial enzymatic pathways and molecules that induce desired cellular and systemic responses in the human body, will be pivotal for elucidation of the precise ways microorganisms sustain health and well-being (for more detail on this topic see here).

Based on what we know about the complexity of the human microbiome and the now many decades of probiotics research, this effort will require innovation and multi-disciplinary coordination. Just as early microbiologists raced to address the high rates of mortality due to microbial pathogens, we are in a new age where again microorganisms are regarded as emerging public health threats. However, we now have to our advantage the knowledge that not all microorganisms cause harm but instead the majority may offer solutions to the greatest health challenges of the twenty-first century.

 

 

What makes a synbiotic? ISAPP provides a sneak peek at the forthcoming international scientific consensus definition

By Kristina Campbell, science and medical writer

The word ‘synbiotic’ is found on the labels of many different products, from supplements to chocolate bars, and it has generally been understood to be a combination of a probiotic and a prebiotic. But what happens when scientists want to test whether these combination products really deliver any health benefits? Can these products be tailored to have specific effects on the body or on the human gut microbiota? Agreeing on a clear definition of synbiotics is needed to provide focus for scientific research in this area, to facilitate the design of studies, and to allow for progress wherein their health effects are uncovered.

The scientific definition of synbiotic was the central topic of the international scientific panel brought together by ISAPP in May 2019 in Antwerp, Belgium. Members of the panel, eleven of the top academic experts in the field of probiotics and prebiotics, gathered to clarify a scientifically valid approach for use of the word ‘synbiotic’, and to communicate this by position paper. The outcome of this consensus panel is currently in press at Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

Kelly Swanson, Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and Division of Nutritional Sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, chaired the panel and led the paper’s publication. Swanson has been studying gastrointestinal health in both humans, companion animals (dogs and cats) and rodent models for the past 20 years—and having followed the rapid advances in the field of probiotics and prebiotics during those two decades, he knew the task of creating a synbiotic definition would not be easy.

He says, “The field is highly complicated, so an interdisciplinary panel was essential. The main areas of expertise included microbiology and microbial ecology; gastrointestinal physiology; immunology; food science; nutritional biochemistry and host metabolism.”

A timely discussion

According to Swanson, an increase in research interest, built on a foundation of recent scientific and technical gains, made this the right time to come to consensus on a synbiotic definition. He says, “Over the past decade, technological advances have allowed scientists to study the gut microbiome at a molecular level. In addition to characterizing the composition of the gut microbes, researchers are learning more about their biological activity and how they may impact host health.”

Furthermore, clarity about the definition was urgently needed because of the rapidly growing synbiotics market. Consumers seem to be more aware of synbiotics than ever, but they face a bewildering array of product offerings labeled as ‘synbiotic’ without a clear understanding of what that term entails and with no framework for establishing scientific efficacy. Swanson says, “As the field has moved forward and the sales of probiotics and prebiotics have increased, there has been more interest in combining substances to enhance efficacy. Some of these combinations may function as synbiotics, but it is not guaranteed. Rather than randomly combining substances together, there should be scientific rationale supporting their use.”

Clarifying the concept

One of the first questions the panel members had to tackle was whether to stick to the idea of a synbiotic as ‘probiotic plus prebiotic’, thus leaning heavily on the ISAPP-led international consensus definitions of probiotics and prebiotics published in 2014 and 2017, respectively. But the panel members decided this narrow scope would ultimately limit innovation in the synbiotic category.

Swanson explains, “While many synbiotics may be composed of an established prebiotic and established probiotic, the panel did not want to restrict scientific advances in the synbiotic category by requiring use of components already established on their own.”

As a result, he says, previously untested live microbes and potential prebiotic substances could be considered a synbiotic if the combination showed efficacy, and if the health benefit came from administering both the live microbe and the substrate it utilized—that is, the microbe together with its ‘food’.

Another conclusion from the panel is that probiotics (with known health benefits) and prebiotics (with known health benefits) cannot be called synbiotics unless they have been tested together. “There should be a rationale supporting the combination used, and then testing of the combination to confirm its efficacy,” says Swanson.

The panel suggests a synbiotic may be composed of either of the following, as long as efficacy is demonstrated for the combination:

  • Established probiotic + established prebiotic (each component meeting the efficacy and mechanistic criteria for each)
  • Previously untested live microbe + a substrate that is selectively utilized by the co-administered live microbe

Further details, including two different ‘categories’ of synbiotics, will be provided in the published paper.

In addition to the definition, the publication will cover the history of synbiotic-type products, how these products can be characterized, levels of evidence that currently exist versus levels of evidence desired, points about safety documentation and reporting, and relevant characteristics of the target hosts.

A remaining challenge—not just for the expert group, but also across the field—is the difficulty of establishing causal links between substances’ effects on the gut microbiota (e.g. ‘selective utilization’ of a substrate) and health outcomes.

While the publication of the synbiotic definition will be an important milestone, Swanson anticipates further discussion in the years ahead. “As more is learned, I expect the criteria for assessing synbiotic efficacy will continue to change,” he says.

An update on the scientific consensus definition of synbiotic was presented to ISAPP members at the 2020 virtual meeting in June.

 

The Art of Interpretation

By Prof. Gregor Reid, BSc Hons PhD MBA ARM CCM Dr HS, Lawson Research Institute, University of Western Ontario, Canada

It takes a certain degree of intelligence to become a scientist, and certainly hard work to be able to fund a lab and students. Yet, is it not bemusing when scientists cannot interpret simple things like definitions and the results of human studies?

I’ve written repeatedly, as have others, about the definition of probiotics (in case you forgot – “Live microorganisms that, (or which) when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”),1,2 and yet people look at it and must think that ‘dead’ fits, as does ‘consume’, as does ‘colonize’. It beggar’s belief how such a simple definition can be so badly interpreted by intelligent people.

Time after time papers I review mis-write and/or misinterpret the definition. Conference after conference, I hear dieticians, pharmacists, physicians, scientists not only get the definition wrong, but say things like ‘the probiotics in kombucha’ when there are none, ‘we have lots of probiotics in our gut’ when you don’t unless you consumed them, ‘the lactobacilli need to colonize’ when this was never a prerequisite nor does it happen except in rare instances.

The interpretation gets more difficult when people use terms that are completely undefined like ‘psycho-biotics’ and ‘post-biotics’. Even ‘dead probiotics’ have been used in clinical trials – God help us when the authors can’t even define it. Why stop at killing probiotic strains? Why not just kill any bacterial strain? Even the gut-brain axis which is now mentioned everywhere in the literature is undefined and unproven. The vagus nerve links to many body sites as does the nervous system, making it exceedingly difficult to prove that brain responses are only due to the gut microbes.

Everyone can site a manuscript that has been badly analyzed, interpreted or peer-reviewed, or whose findings are overblown. But let’s not excuse this as ‘it’s just science’ or ‘it’s just the way it is.’ No, it is not. When a paper uses a product that is stated to be ‘probiotic’, there is an onus on the authors to make sure the product meets the appropriate criteria. These have been stated over and over again and reiterated this March, 2019.3

If scientists and science writers are really that smart, then how do they keep getting this wrong? How do we let a poorly analyzed paper get published and allow authors to say that Bacteroides fragilis is a probiotic that can treat autism?4,5 And when this leads to companies claiming probiotics can treat autism, why do other scientists convey cynicism for the field instead of against their colleagues and specific companies making the false claims?

Where does opinion cross the line with ignorance or stupidity? Martin Luther King Jr. must have predicted life today when he said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Is it envy or anger that drives the anti-probiotic sentiments? It seems to go far beyond a difference of opinion. When the BBC and JAMA fail to comment on two much better and larger studies on the effects of probiotics published6,7 at the same time as the ones in Cell8,9 that were promoted by press releases, what is driving opinion? The science or the press releases? Are the journalists and communications’ people interpreting study results vigorously? One cannot believe they are.

In an era where anyone can write anything at any time and pass it along to the world, what are we recipients to do? Just go with our instincts? Soon, we will not know the difference between fact and fake news. The avatars will be so real, we will act on falsehoods without knowing. When all news is fake, where does that leave us as people, never mind scientists?

Manuscripts are sent for peer-review but how many reviewers are experts in bioinformatics, molecular genetics, clinical medicine, biostatistics and what happens on the front line of products to consumers or patients? Like it or not, poor studies will get out there and it will be the media who will tell the story and interpret the findings or press releases.

One must hope that confirmatory science will continue and if it fails, the writers and readers will stop citing the original incorrect report. But how often does that happen? And what are we left with?

It takes effort to object or fight back, but if we don’t then the fake news will become the norm.

Try interpreting that if you will.

 

Literature Cited

  1.  FAO/WHO. 2001. Probiotics in food.  http://www.fao.org/food/food-safety-quality/a-z-index/probiotics/en/
  2. Hill C. et al. 2014. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotics. Nat. Reviews Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 11(8):506-14.
  3. Reid G. et al. 2019. Probiotics: reiterating what they are and what they are not. Front. Microbiol. 10: article 424.
  4. Hsiao et al. 2013. Microbiota modulate behavioral and physiological abnormalities associated with neurodevelopmental disorders. Cell. 155(7):1451-63.
  5. Sharon G, et al. 2016. The central nervous system and the gut microbiome. Cell. 167(4):915-932.
  6. Korpela K. et al. 2018. Probiotic supplementation restores normal microbiota composition and function in antibiotic-treated and in caesarean-born infants. Microbiome. 6(1):182.
  7. De Wolfe, T.J. et al. 2018. Oral probiotic combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium alters the gastrointestinal microbiota during antibiotic treatment for Clostridium difficile infection. PLoS One. 13(9):e0204253.
  8. Suez J. et al. (2018). Post-antibiotic gut mucosal microbiome reconstitution is impaired by probiotics and improved by autologous FMT. Cell. 2018 Sep 6;174(6):1406-1423.e16.
  9. Zmora N. et al. 2018. Personalized gut mucosal colonization resistance to empiric probiotics is associated with unique host and microbiome features. Cell. Sep 6;174(6):1388-1405.e21.