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Limitations of microbiome measurement: Prof. Gloor shares insights with ISAPP

February 20, 2019

The number of papers published on the human microbiome is growing exponentially – but not all of the studies are equally well designed or reported. Evaluating the latest research requires a basic understanding of the latest approaches to microbiome methods and data analysis.

To help equip scientists not conducting microbiome research with the tools to understand microbiome-focused publications, ISAPP hosted a webinar titled Understanding microbiome experiments: a critical assessment of methods and data analysis. The webinar featured Gregory Gloor, PhD., Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, The University of Western Ontario, Canada.

Prof. Gloor’s slides are available here.

Prof. Gloor opened his talk with a sobering perspective: the current body of microbiome publications is fraught with problems. There is a fundamental lack of reproducibility in the microbiome field (Sinha et al. 2017). This is largely due to the large number of tools available and a lack of an a priori established research plan for microbiome analysis, which should be consistently followed throughout a project. At every step of the way, many decisions must be made regarding wet lab methods, bioinformatics toolsets and statistics to use. Different choices lead to different results. Once the biological specimens are assayed, choices for bioinformatics and statistical analyses can greatly influence the conclusions. In short, it’s possible to view the data through so many different lenses that eventually a researcher can find a story worth telling. How close that story comes to the truth is a principle that sometimes is sacrificed for the sake of an interesting story.

Another important challenge to the field is representative sampling. Too few samples are typically taken, often because of cost limitations, so that the samples do not reasonably approximate the truth about the environment being sampled. Conclusions from such studies result in both many false positives and many false negatives.

Prof. Gloor also warned about outsourcing microbiome analysis. Commercial entities often use every metric, hoping the customer will get some outcome they hoped for. Further, their tools are often outdated or proprietary. So caution must be used – there is no substitute for expertise.

Some suggestions for improving outcomes were offered:

  • Each project should stipulate a research approach and outcome a priori, which is consistently followed throughout the project.
  • Methodological consistency is important within a lab, but analytical methods do not necessarily need to be standardized across all labs. If all labs use the same methods, consistent, but incorrect, outcomes may result. So use of different metrics is good, but methods should be consistent within a project. The value of different research groups using different methods to ask particular research questions is that if the same result emerges from different approaches, it increases confidence that the results are true.
  • Gloor cautioned that microbiome datasets are compositional, and compositional data approaches must be used (Gloor et al 2017).
  • Functional readouts have less methodological variation than taxonomic readouts. Therefore, functional analysis of shotgun metagenomics or shotgun metatranscriptomics is typically a more reproducible, and also more informative, readout.
  • Recent advances have significantly decreased the cost of performing shotgun metagenomics for both taxonomic and functional readouts (Hillmann et al 2018).
  • There are now near-complete microbial genomic datasets available for European, North American and Asian populations (Almeida et al 2019) that will make it easier to functionally map datasets.

Prof. Gloor mentioned an interesting aside: prior clinical trial registration, ~60% of large clinical trials showed benefit of the intervention being tested. After the registration process required declaration of primary research outcomes, that number dropped to closer to 10% (Kaplan and Irvin 2015). This suggests that primary outcomes and analysis methods need to be in place to restrict researcher bias. Right now such mechanisms are insufficient in the microbiome field.

Prof. Gloor’s paper, Microbiome Datasets Are Compositional: And This Is Not Optional, provides great background reading for this webinar.

This webinar was developed by ISAPP Industry Advisory Committee representatives as an extension of the annual IAC Learning Forum.

Dr. Gloor is a professor of biochemistry with broad experience in molecular biology, genetics and genomics. His research is focused on the development of tools to examine 16S rRNA gene composition, gene expression of mixed population samples and metabolomic analysis of clinical samples. He is currently working on developing and adapting principled methods to characterize correlation and differential abundance in sparse, high throughput sequencing data as generated in 16S rRNA gene sequencing surveys, meta-genomics and meta-transcriptomics. One of his primary contributions has been the ALDEx2 tool in Bioconductor for the analysis of high-throughput experiments that generate counts per sequence tag: 16S rRNA gene sequencing, metagenomics, transcriptomics and selex-type experiments.

Humpty Dumpty and the Microbiome

Prof. Colin Hill, Microbiology Department and Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, University College Cork, Ireland (@colinhillucc)

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Microbiome science is an evolving discipline, and new terminology is an important part of any developing field.  But precise language is important, especially in a multidisciplinary field with researchers from many diverse scientific backgrounds.  Language provides us a means of communicating with brevity and accuracy, but this is effective only if the reader is deriving the correct (intended) information from the author.

For example, is there a difference between ‘microbiome’, ‘microbiota’ and ‘microflora’?  Are the terms interchangeable, or would it be useful to have them mean related but distinctly different concepts?  I have heard people state that ‘microbiota’ refers to the microbial content of an environment, whereas ‘microbiome’ refers to the microbes AND their environment (the biome).  I have heard others suggest that ‘microbiome’ actually refers to the genetic content of a particular microbiota, in the same way that the genome is the genetic content of an organism.  Some definitions assert that the microbiome/microbiota/microflora only describes the microbial cells (bacteria, archaea and fungi) in a particular niche, while others include non-cellular microbes such as viruses and bacteriophage in their definition.  It has also been pointed out that ‘microflora’ is a misnomer, since technically the term ‘flora’ is reserved for the kingdom Plantae.

A few other examples.  Do we all know what is meant when someone uses the term ‘metagenomics’?  Also, people often refer to analysing the microbiome by 16S – but they are really only analysing the bacterial fraction of the microbiome, the ‘bacteriome’.  Of course ‘16S’ itself is not a valid term – it is 16S rRNA genes that are being analysed.  Would a clear distinction between microbiome, bacteriome, phageome, mycome, virome, archaeome and all the other ‘omes’ help or hinder our understanding of the subject under discussion?  Should most studies actually use the term ‘faecal bacteriome’ rather than ‘gut microbiome’, since it is almost always faeces that is under investigation, and usually only the bacterial component?

I am not going to call out any individuals for abuse of language, since I am pretty sure I could look at my own output and find lots of examples of poorly expressed concepts.  But does any of this matter or am I simply being pedantic? I think it does matter, since if terms are poorly defined it may lead to confusion on the part of the reader (or listener), whereas the authors (or speakers) may know exactly what they mean – neither more or less, as suggested by Humpty Dumpty.

ISAPP has convened consensus panels on the meaning of some very commonly used terms such as probiotic1 and prebiotic2, but there is a limit to this activity, and consensus panels cannot be convened for every new term.  Even with these consensus papers, we still have a plethora of additional terms surrounding beneficial microbes, including paraprobiotics (killed microbes), psychobiotics (originally defined as probiotics with a mental health benefit, but the definition has recently been expanded to any exogenous influence whose effect on the brain is bacterially-mediated3), synbiotics (probiotics and prebiotics administered simultaneously – a term for which ISAPP is convening another Consensus Panel in 2019), live biotherapeutics, etc, etc.  One site I saw referred to bacteriophage as a prebiotic, using the argument that they can influence a microbiome in a selective manner to achieve a beneficial outcome.  This is surely a good example of where the ISAPP definition could provide clarity since prebiotics have to be utilised in order to qualify for the term. Other terms we often use without an agreed consensus as to their meaning are ‘dysbiotic’ (when we could use disturbed, or different, or disrupted), ‘unculturable’ (when we usually mean ‘not yet cultured as far as I know but I haven’t really tried’), ‘hypothetical genes’ (when we actually mean ‘function unknown’), ‘stability’, ‘resilience’, etc.  It may be useful to have some kind of standardised microbiome dictionary, or an accepted glossary of terms.  This is not a new idea (so few of mine ever are), and Julian Marchesi and Jacques Ravel published a lovely short paper to this effect in 20154.  The World Microbiome Day website also has a very short Glossary5.

Obviously, words must be the servants of the author and should not restrict expression or limit our ideas, and in many instances context can make it abundantly clear what meaning is intended by the author.  But in general, a strict definition is not the enemy of understanding, but makes it easier for author and reader to share common ground.

Who should create and curate such a Microbiome Glossary?  Ideally it would be interactive, perhaps along the line of a wiki page, where people could provide their newly coined terms along with a strict definition and arrive at a consensus for commonly used terms.  Reviewers of journal papers and reviews could help, by challenging authors on what terms they use, and whether or not they are the appropriate ones.

Meanwhile, I have to go back to the lab to do some comprehensive metagenomics on the gut microbiome – by which I mean that a competent scientist who works with me is going to go into the lab and conduct a particular form of 16s rRNA gene analysis to profile the more abundant members of the bacteriome of a portion of a faecal sample which has been collected, stored and extracted according to our in-house protocols.  Obviously!

 

  1. Hill et al., 2014. Expert consensus document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic.  Nat. Rev. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 11, 506.
  2. Gibson et al., 2017. Expert consensus document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on the definition and scope of prebiotics.  Nat. Rev. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 14, 491.
  3. Sarkar et al., 2016. Psychobiotics and the Manipulation of Bacteria–Gut–Brain Signals.  Trends in Neurosciences 39, 763
  4. Marchesi JR and J. Ravel. 2015. The vocabulary of microbiome research: a proposal.  Microbiome 3, 31
  5. http://worldmicrobiomeday.com/glossary-of-microbiome-terms/

I have IBS – should I have my microbiome tested?

By Prof.  Eamonn Quigley, MD. The Methodist Hospital and Weill Cornell School of Medicine, Houston

I am a gastroenterologist and specialize in what is referred to as “neurogastroenterology” – a rather grandiose term to refer to those problems that arise from disturbances in the muscles or nerves of the gut or in the communications between the brain and the gut.  Yes, the gut has its own nervous system – as elaborate as the spinal cord – which facilitates the two-way communication between the brain and gut.

The most common conditions that I deal with are termed functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) among which irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most frequent. I have cared for IBS sufferers and been involved in IBS research for decades. But while much progress has been made, IBS continues to be a frustrating problem for many sufferers. No, it will not kill you, but it sure can interfere with your quality of life. Dietary changes, attention to life-style issues (including stress) and some medications can help but they do not help all sufferers all of the time. It is no wonder, therefore, that sufferers look elsewhere for relief. Because, symptoms are commonly triggered by food, there are a host of websites and practitioners offering “food allergy” testing even though there is minimal evidence that food allergy (which is a real problem, causes quite different symptoms and can be fatal) has anything to do with IBS. Nevertheless, sufferers pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket to have these worthless tests performed.

Now as I sit in clinic I am confronted by a new phenomenon – microbiome testing. I cringe when a patient hands me pages of results of their stool microbiome analysis. Has their hard-earned money been well spent? The simple answer is no. Let me explain. First, our knowledge of the “normal” microbiome is still in evolution so we can’t yet define what is abnormal – unless it is grossly abnormal. Second, we have learned that many factors, including diet, medications and even bowel habit can influence the microbiome.  These factors more than your underlying IBS may determine your microbiome test results.  Third, while a variety of abnormalities have been described in the microbiome in IBS sufferers, they have not been consistent. Someday we may identify a microbiome signature that diagnoses IBS or some IBS subgroups – we, simply, are not there yet. Indeed, our group, together with researchers in Ireland and the UK, are currently involved in a large study looking at diet, microbiome and other markers in an attempt to unravel these relationships in IBS.

There have been a lot of exciting developments in microbiome research over the past few years. One that has caused a lot of excitement comes from research studies showing that the microbiome can communicate with the brain (the microbiome-gut-brain axis). It is not too great a leap of faith to imagine how such communications could disturb the flow of signals between and brain and the gut and result in symptoms that typify IBS. We also know that some antibiotics and probiotics can help IBS sufferers. Indeed, about 10% of IBS suffers can date the onset of their symptoms to an episode of gastroenteritis (so-called post-infection IBS). All of this makes it likely that the microbiome has a role in IBS; what we do not know is exactly how. Is the issue a change in the microbiome? Is it how we react to our microbiome? Is it the bacteria themselves or something that they produce? Could our microbiome pattern predict what treatments we will respond to? These are fascinating and important questions which are being actively studied. In the meantime, I feel that microbiome testing in IBS (unless conducted as part of a research study) is not helpful.

 

Related Reading:

Microbiome analysis: hype or helpful?

Why microbiome tests are currently of limited value for your clinical practice

Here’s the poop on getting your gut microbiome analyzed

 

Where does our food come from – why should we care?

Dr. Karen Scott, The Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen,  Scotland

The food we eat feeds our microbes, gives us energy and nutrition, and keeps us healthy. The choices we make about our food clearly affects our health, but also has a huge effect on the world around us. We need to make more effort to choose correctly.

Sometimes it seems that everywhere we look, someone has an opinion on what we should be eating. Television is full of programmes telling us how and what to cook – suitable for a range of abilities. In supermarkets we are continually targeted with special offers and promotions, encouraging us to buy things we do not need, that are not on our shopping list. In magazines there are page long adverts, letting us know many reasons why our lives will be enriched if we purchase product Y, and perhaps even how we will be missing out if we do not. Even newspapers print articles telling us which foods are “super” this week, and will endow us with youthful skin, long life, and/or a svelte figure. Next week there will be another article with a new superfood, and one demoting last week’s superfood to the “standard” food, or even demonising it completely.

Yet even with all this focus on what we should be eating, do we really care about where our food comes from? Shouldn’t we really be more concerned with the provenance and sustainability of our food, rather than whether it is “super”?

Quinoa is a grain with a high nutrient content, high protein content (including all nine essential amino acids) and is also a source of some essential micronutrients and vitamins. By popular measures, a “superfood”. Quinoa is primarily grown in South America (Peru, Chile and Bolivia) where it is an important dietary staple. The increased demand and resultant export of quinoa has contributed considerably to the Peruvian economy. On the other hand, the cost increases associated with the increased worldwide demand means that the local Andean population now struggle to afford to include this healthy food in their own diets. Additionally the enlarged land area now used for quinoa production has reduced the amount of land available to grow alternative crops, and this reduced diversity has a negative impact on soil quality and on wildlife. Not so “super”.

Another healthy food-fad with a negative environmental impact is avocado. The current demand for avocados as part of the ‘green smoothie’ revolution has resulted in considerable deforestation in Mexico to make way for avocado plantations. Avocado trees also need a lot of water, which, given that they are frequently grown in climates with problems of drought, is clearly not sustainable.

The other factor is price – we are constantly persuaded that we should be looking for the best deal, getting those “2-for-1 offers”, or buying our food in the specific supermarket “saving you the most on your weekly shop”. The reality is that we spend a smaller % of our income on food today than we ever have – and this is not because we eat less, far from it. But if we think about it, it is not the large supermarket that loses money when it introduces offers. Buy one get one free offers on, for example fruit, usually mean that the farmer is only getting paid for one of every two oranges sold. Is this fair? If you ask a people doing their food shopping if they think that milk should cost more than water – most people would say “yes of course”. Yet at the milk counter in the supermarket they automatically reach for the “special offer”, cheapest product. Sometimes the farmer gets paid less for the milk he sells the supermarket than it costs to produce. Again if you asked people in the shop if they thought this was fair, they would no doubt say no, but they still reach for the “special offer”, cheapest product. This is already driving smaller dairy farmers out of business. Is this what we want? We as consumers, as well as the supermarkets, have to take responsibility.

Similarly with meat products and eggs. Most people, when asked about the best and most humane ways to look after animals on farms, prefer the low density, outside methods often depicted in children’s story books. Yet when we reach the meat counter in the supermarket we are more likely to reach for the cheaper product than the one from the farm which assures humane conditions, but which may cost twice as much. Such farming methods are more expensive to run, so the products have to cost more. We have to make more effort to include our instinctive morality when we are actually making purchases of food.

We have also become accustomed to being able to buy anything, at any time of year. If we want to buy fruit that is out-of-season in our own country, it will be in-season somewhere else and can be flown across the world for display in our local supermarket. When we ask people if they care about global warming – most will agree that it is a big problem, threatening the world. Yet they will buy specific fruits or vegetables that have been flown 1000s of miles, in aeroplanes contributing CO2 emissions, without a thought. Locally produced food, eaten in season, completely avoids this non-essential contribution to global warming.

Feeding our microbes is easy – they just eat our leftovers. But perhaps we also need to think about them. Food produced in intensively farmed conditions contains more pesticide and antibiotic residues than foods produced less intensively. Depending where we live, imported foods may have fewer controls on additives and production methods than those produced locally. Although specific studies have not been carried out to gauge the effect of such residues on our microbes, it is likely that there will be an effect. The healthy compounds in fruits develop best when they are allowed to ripen on the bush/tree and are not harvested unripe and then transported across the world. Our ancestors ate fresh foods in season and produced locally. People living in remote areas of the modern world without access to the diverse range of foods in a supermarket have a more diverse, healthy microbiota than those of us consuming “western diets”. Our microbes do not need, and potentially do not want, intensively produced foods.

Many of us are in the fortunate position of being able to afford to pay a bit more for our food, and thus to support it being produced in the way we would prefer if we stopped to think about it. This is why we DO have to stop to think and not automatically reach for the cheapest product on the shelf.  If we do not support farmers who are producing food in the most humane way, they will go out of business and we will be left with no choice but to buy mass-produced, often imported, food. Is this really what we want?

We have become so accustomed to paying less for our food, and looking for bargains, that we seem to care less about the quality and provenance than the price. Unless we change our outlook we will affect whole populations and environments forever. We need to stop the disconnect between our thoughts about what our foods should be, and what we actually buy, and we need to do it before it is too late.

Conference Focusing on the Microbiome in Women

By Prof. Gregor Reid, University of Western Ontario

It started with an idea for a mini symposium as an add-on to the PhD defence of Jessica Younes in 2015. It would be an event that focused on the impact of microbes on women’s health.

It had never been done before. Held in Artis, the Amsterdam Zoo and Microbiology museum, the 2015 conference attracted close to 100 people.

Following two more successful meeting in The Netherlands, “Women and their Microbes” is now coming to North America.

On March 6th and 7th next year an exciting program awaits at McMaster University’s campus in Hamilton, Ontario, a 90 minute drive from downtown Toronto.

See the program here.

Last year, I was happy to pass membership on the organizing committee to young clinicians and scientists such as Dr. Ruben Hummelen, who along with Jessica, have prepared an outstanding and practical program for 2019. Winclove B.V. remains the key sponsor, and ISAPP continues to add its voice.

As you will see from the program, there are a number of internationally recognized speakers, but also some outstanding Canadians you may not have had the pleasure to yet hear. The first day has split sessions with an emphasis on clinical practice. The second day features aspects of pregnancy influenced by microbes, including the exciting gut-brain axis research.

It is a great opportunity for scientists who have enjoyed ISAPP meetings and for members of our Students and Fellows Association to participate. At only $50 for students and $120 for faculty, you’ll be hard pressed to find a meeting with such value for money.

 

Minimum criteria for probiotics: ISAPP perspectives

By Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, Executive Science Officer, ISAPP

During its 2018 annual meeting (June 5-7), ISAPP convened a group of 30 participants from 13 countries to address issues associated with global harmonization of regulations for probiotics and prebiotics. This topic was of interest due to the broad international presence at this meeting, ISAPP’s first in Asia. The goal of this group was to provide regulators guidance derived from this assemblage of experts regarding the minimum criteria a probiotic food or supplement should meet. Drs. Seppo Salminen, Yuan-Kun Lee, and Gabriel Vinderola, who chaired this group, recently completed a summary titled “ISAPP position statement on minimum criteria for harmonizing global regulatory approaches for probiotics in foods and supplements”.

In December of 2017 the International Probiotic Association (IPA) presented a proposal to Codex Alimentarius – a recognized body that develops global standards and guidelines related to foods – regarding establishment of guidelines for probiotic foods. Codex Alimentarius accepted this proposal and requested that Argentina prepare draft guidelines to be considered in the 2018 session of the Codex Alimentarius  Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Use. ISAPP representatives and group coordinators (Sanders, Salminen and Vinderola) took part along with IPA in a scientific meeting in Argentina to present the ISAPP views to local authorities and experts.  IPA hopes that these efforts will lead to harmonized regulations since “this lack of harmonization in industry practice and legislation remains and often leads to serious issues and concerns for the probiotics industry, regulators, and even consumers in regard of quality, safety and labelling.” (Page1 of the proposal)

As the efforts of harmonization of regulations for probiotic foods through Codex progresses, ISAPP offers – through this summary document – its perspectives on minimum criteria for probiotics. The ISAPP group’s conclusions echo the principles outlined in the IPA proposal. Our hope is that this ISAPP document will provide useful perspective to local regulators. As of this writing, Prof. Salminen has delivered this document to the Codex representative at the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Food. We hope that further dissemination of the perspectives in this document will contribute to a science-based approach to global harmonization of regulations for probiotics.

See the document for the list of minimum criteria.

ISAPP Releases New Infographic – Probiotic Checklist: Making a Smart Selection

Not all products labelled “probiotic” are true probiotics. ISAPP just released a new infographic focused on helping consumers make smart selections when examining probiotic products. The infographic addresses identifying products backed by science, effective dosing, and more.

See and download the full infographic here.

See all ISAPP infographics here.

 

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Probiotics and D-lactic acid acidosis in children

Prof. Hania Szajewska PhD, The Medical University of Warsaw, Department of Paediatrics, Poland and Prof. Seppo Salminen PhD, Faculty of Medicine, Functional Foods Forum, University of Turku, Finland

See related post ‘Brain Fogginess’ and D-Lactic Acidosis: Probiotics Are Not the Cause

In their recent study, Rao and colleagues1 incriminated probiotics in the induction of D-lactic acidosis (1). Many who benefit from probiotics could be frightened—on the basis of this report—into stopping them, with potentially negative impacts on their health (2). Some probiotic bacteria, including some specific components of the intestinal microbiota, may produce D-lactic acid. Indeed, if plasma D-lactic acid rises sufficiently, it is clinically relevant, causing D-lactic acidosis. D-lactic acidosis has mainly been observed in subjects with short bowel syndrome. However, some authorities have regulated the use of D-lactic acid producing bacteria in infant and weaning foods, but the reasoning for normal infant population has been debated. Even in adults, the safety of D-lactic acid producing bacteria has been challenged, but apart from short bowel patients no evidence on clinical problems has been reported (3).

For this reason, we conducted a review and examined whether D-lactic acid-producing bacteria, acidified infant formulas and fermented infant formulas were potential causes of paediatric D-lactic acidosis (4).

We identified five randomised controlled trials conducted between 2005-2017 with 544 healthy infants. Additionally, some case reports and experimental studies were considered. No clinically relevant adverse effects of D-lactic acid-producing probiotics or fermented infant formulas in healthy children were identified. The only known cases of paediatric D-lactic acidosis were observed in patients with short bowel syndrome (4). It is of importance that human milk also contains lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, some of which may produce D-lactic acid. Some stress situations, such as exercise, may elevate human milk lactate concentrations.  Thus, breast milk D-lactate content needs to be analysed more carefully to compare with fermented infant formulas.

Taken together, our results suggest that neither the probiotics that were evaluated in the studies we reviewed nor fermented infant formulas cause D-lactic acidosis in healthy children.

 

  1. Rao, S. S. C., Rehman, A., Yu, S. & Andino, N. M. Brain fogginess, gas and bloating: a link between SIBO, probiotics and metabolic acidosis.  Transl. Gastroenterol.9, 162 (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6006167/
  2. Sanders, M. E., Merenstein, D. & Merrifield, C. A. Probiotics for human use.  Bull.43, 212–225 (2018). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nbu.12334
  3. Quigley E.M.M, Pot B., Sanders M.E. ‘Brain fogginess’ and D-lactic acidosis: probiotics are not the cause. Transl. Gastroenterol.9, 187 (2018). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41424-018-0057-9
  4. Łukasik, J., Salminen S., Szajewska H. Rapid review shows that probioticsand fermented infant formulas do not cause D-lactic acidosis in healthy children. Acta Pediatrica 107, 1322-1326 (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29603358

FDA/NIH Public Workshop on Science and Regulation of Live Microbiome-based Products: No Headway on Regulatory Issues

September 20, 2018

By Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, Executive Science Officer, ISAPP

On September 16, 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) collaborated on the organization of a public workshop on “Science and Regulation of Live Microbiome-based Products Used to Prevent, Treat, or Cure Diseases in Humans”.  I was present at this meeting along with ISAPP vice-president, Prof. Daniel Merenstein MD, who lectured on the topic of probiotics and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

Prof. Dan Merenstein speaking at CBER/NIAID conference

While regulatory issues are often discussed at other microbiome conferences, the fact that this meeting was organized by the FDA suggested it was a unique opportunity for some robust discussions and possible progress on regulatory issues involved with researching and translating microbiome-targeted products. The regulatory pathways to drug development seem clear enough, but regulatory issues for development of functional foods or supplements are less clear. Jeff Gordon and colleagues have previously pointed out regulatory hurdles to innovation of microbiota-directed foods for improving health and preventing disease (Greene et al. 2017), and at the 2015 ISAPP meeting, similar problems were discussed (Sanders et al. 2016).

The meeting turned out to be mostly about science. Some excellent lectures were given by top scientists in the field (see agenda below), but discussion about regulatory concerns was a minimal component of the day. Questions seeding the panel discussions focused on research gaps, not regulatory concerns: an unfortunate missed opportunity.

Bob Durkin, deputy director of the Office of Dietary Supplements (CFSAN), left after his session ended, suggesting he did not see his role as an important one in this discussion. One earlier question about regulatory perspectives on prebiotics led him to comment that the terms ‘probiotic’ and ‘prebiotic’ are not defined. From U.S. legal perspective he is correct, as there are no laws or FDA regulations that define these terms. But from a scientific perspective, such a statement is disappointing, as it shows the lack of recognition by U.S. regulators of the widely cited definitions developed by top researchers in these fields and published in 2014 and 2017, respectively.

Two issues not addressed at this meeting will require clarification from the FDA:

The first is how to oversee human research on foods or dietary supplements. CBER’s oversight of this research has meant most studies are required to be conducted under an Investigational New Drug (IND) application. From CBER’s perspective, these studies are drug studies. However, when there is no intent for research to lead to a commercial drug, the IND process is not relevant. Even if endpoints in the study are viewed as drug endpoints by CBER, there should be some mechanism for CFSAN to make a determination if a study fits legal functions of foods, including impacting the structure/function of the human body, reducing the risk of disease, or providing dietary support for management of a disease. When asked about this, Durkin’s reply was that CFSAN has no mechanism to oversee INDs. But the point was that without compromising study quality or study subject safety, it seems that FDA should be able to oversee legitimate food research without forcing it into the drug rubric. CBER acknowledged that research on structure/function endpoints is exempt from an IND according to 2013 guidance. But FDA’s interpretation of what constitutes a drug is so far-reaching that it is difficult to design a meaningful study that does not trigger drug status to them. For example, CBER views substances that are given to manage side effects of a drug, or symptoms of an illness, as a drug. Even if the goal of the research is to evaluate a probiotic’s impact on the structure of an antibiotic-perturbed microbiota, and even if the subjects are healthy, they consider this a drug study. With this logic, a saltine cracker eaten to alleviate nausea after taking a medication is a drug. Chicken soup consumed to help with nasal congestion is a drug. In practice, many Americans would benefit from a safe and effective dietary supplement which they can use to help manage gut disruptions. But in the current regulatory climate, such research cannot be conducted on a food or dietary supplement in the United States. There are clearly avenues of probiotic research that should be conducted under the drug research oversight process. But for other human research on probiotics, the IND process imposes research delays, added cost, and unneeded phase 1 studies, which are not needed to assure subject safety or research quality. Further, funders may choose to conduct research outside the United States to avoid this situation, which might explain the low rate of probiotic clinical trials in the United States (see figure).

The second issue focuses on actions by CBER that have stalled evidence-based use of available probiotic products. This issue was discussed by Prof. Merenstein in his talk. He pointed out that after the tragic incident that led to an infant’s death from a contaminated probiotic product (see here; and for a blog post on the topic, see here), CBER issued a warning (here) that stated that any probiotic use by healthcare providers should entail an IND. This effectively halted availability of probiotics in some hospital systems. For example, at Johns Hopkins Health-system Hospitals, the use of probiotics is now prohibited (see below). Patients are not allowed to bring their own probiotics into the hospital out of concern for the danger this poses to other patients and staff. This means that a child taking probiotics to maintain remission of ulcerative colitis cannot continue in the hospital; an infant with colic won’t be administered a probiotic; or a patient susceptible to Clostridium difficile infection cannot be given a probiotic. Available evidence on specific probiotic preparations indicates benefit can be achieved with probiotic use in all of these cases, and denying probiotics can be expected to cause more harm than benefit.

It might be an unfortunate accident of history that probiotics have been delivered in foods and supplements more than drugs. The concept initially evolved in food in the early 1900’s, with Metchnikoff’s observation that the consumption of live bacilli in fermented milk had value for health. Probiotics have persisted as foods through to the modern day, likely because of their safety. The hundreds of studies conducted globally, including in the U.S. until 10-15 years ago, were not conducted as drug studies, even though most would be perceived today as drug studies by CBER. This has not led to an epidemic of adverse effects among study subjects. True, serious adverse events have been reported, but the overall number needed to harm due to a properly administered probiotic is negligible.

According to its mission, the FDA is “…responsible for advancing the public health by helping to speed innovations that make medical products more effective, safer, and more affordable and by helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medical products and foods to maintain and improve their health.” Forcing human research on products such as yogurts containing probiotics to be conducted as drug research, when there is no intent to market a drug and when the substances are widely distributed commercially as GRAS substances, does not advance this mission. Further, CBER actions that discourage evidence-based use of available probiotics keeps effective and safe products out of the hands of those who can benefit.

A robust discussion on these issues was not part of the meeting earlier this week.  Researchers in the United States interested in developing probiotic drugs will find CBER’s approaches quite helpful. Yet researchers interested in the physiological effects of, or clinical use of, probiotic foods and supplements will continue to be caught in the drug mindset of CBER. CFSAN does not seem interested. But without CFSAN, human research on, and evidence-based usage of, probiotic foods and supplements will continue to decline (see figure), to the detriment of Americans.

Human clinical trials on “probiotic”
1992-September 20, 2018

 

 

 

ISAPP-initiated systematic review and meta-analysis shows the association of probiotic consumption with reduced antibiotic prescriptions

At the ISAPP meeting in Turku, Finland in 2016, scientists convened a working group led by Dan Merenstein of Georgetown University (USA) along with Irene Lenoir-Wijnkoop of University of Utrecht (the Netherlands) and Danone Research. In their discussions, the group identified a gap in the literature: a systematic review of randomized, controlled trials to determine how antibiotic prescriptions are associated with probiotic consumption for the prevention of common acute infections. The protocol was registered with PROSPERO (registration number CRD42016052694).

The analysis, authored by ten scientists, was recently published—and results showed that infants and children who received probiotics were at least 29% less likely to be prescribed antibiotics. Find the paper here in the European Journal of Public Health.

ISAPP scientists say probiotics deserve consideration as a public health intervention that may reduce the widespread over-prescription of antibiotics.

See the ISAPP press release here, and the Georgetown University press release here.

See here for media coverage of this paper:

http://www.microbiometimes.com/scientific-analysis-shows-probiotic-use-is-associated-with-fewer-antibiotic-/

https://www.pharmacytimes.com/resource-centers/vitamins-supplements/daily-probiotics-may-reduce-kids-need-for-antibiotics

https://www.news-medical.net/news/20180914/Probiotics-could-reduce-the-need-for-antibiotics.aspx

Clinical evidence and not microbiota outcomes drive value of probiotics

By ISAPP Board of Directors, plus Prof. Francisco Guarner and Dr. Bruno Pot

September 10, 2018

Two recent papers have generated much adverse publicity for the probiotic field. Headlines driven by sensationalism, not data, claim “Probiotics labelled ‘quite useless’” (BBC) and “Probiotics ‘not as beneficial for gut health as previously thought’” (The Guardian). The quotes are from author Eran Elinav, who generalizes the study findings to all ‘probiotics’ as a class – a generalization that ignores that specific probiotic are meant for specific purposes. This research was published this month in Cell (here and here).

The scope of these papers is limited to microbiome data; no clinical endpoints are assessed. Without clinical evidence, it is not possible to conclude about the tested probiotic’s usefulness, and it is certainly not possible to conclude about probiotic usefulness in general. Stating that probiotics are ‘quite useless’ or ‘not as beneficial’ is, quite simply, wild and factually inaccurate. The authors discount the existing body of evidence for probiotic health benefits, including Level 1 placebo-controlled, randomized trials. Cochrane reviews (the gold standard used by physicians and public health policy makers) of the totality of evidence show that specific probiotics can prevent antibiotic associated diarrhea (AAD) and C. difficile diarrhea. This evidence has been translated into evidence-based recommendations for probiotics issued by medical groups. Regardless of an effect on the microbiota, these are established, evidence-based benefits of probiotics.

No clinical endpoints tracked in either study

What these papers provide is extensive data about the impact of one product containing 11 common probiotic species on different microbiome measures. To the authors’ credit, they analyzed mucosal and luminal samples from humans, in addition to samples from stool.  Nonetheless, the probiotic definition [live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confers a health benefit on the host (Hill et al 2014)] does not require that probiotics function via interaction with the microbiota, nor is there much evidence that they alter the microbiota composition in an appreciable manner. Absence of impact on microbiome measures is not evidence that probiotics lack clinical or physiological effects. Probiotics function via many mechanisms that might not be revealed by the measures made in these papers.

Methodological concerns

A careful reading of this paper reveals many methodological concerns.

The extensive data in the paper is an assortment of different types of analyses. For example, for a beta-diversity metric, they sometimes use weighted Unifrac, sometimes unweighted Unifrac, and sometimes Bray-Curtis, without an explanation for their choice. These approaches to presenting the data can give very different results. With the transcriptomics data, sometimes the authors choose samples from the duodenum and sometimes the jejunum. For example, in figure 6, panels C-E compare the difference in gene expression between the naïve group and the treatment in the duodenum, whereas in panels F-H they compare the antibiotic state with the treatment in the jejunum. Such an approach leads the reader to speculate that the authors picked the metrics and data that best fitted the story they wanted to tell. In a well-conducted clinical trial, the statistical plan is registered before the study starts, to assure readers that the scientific process of advancing a hypothesis and designing a study to test the hypothesis is respected.

The probiotic was not administered to human subjects until 7 days after the treatment with antibiotics commenced, after the damage by the antibiotics has been done. Dozens of human studies with specific probiotics have documented that probiotics prevent AAD or C. difficile infection. In most clinical trials, the probiotic is administered together with the antibiotics. A recent meta-analysis concluded that “administration of probiotics closer to the first dose of antibiotic reduces the risk of (Clostridium difficile infection) by >50% in hospitalized adults.” (Emphasis added) The approach in the Suez et al paper is not consistent with the aforementioned clinical studies, with how probiotics are used in clinical practice or with the knowledge of how probiotics most likely prevent AAD. When provided on the same days as antibiotics, probiotics have the opportunity to prevent overgrowth of opportunistic, antibiotic-resistant microbes by competitive exclusion in the ecosystem. Therefore, the microbiome findings of Suez et al likely cannot be applied to clinical trials with such different time course of antibiotic/probiotic administration.

Several conclusions about the effect of probiotics on the microbiota were based on relative abundance measures, which do not relate to actual bacterial numbers or metabolic activity of all relevant species in the gut.

The antibiotic treatment used was potent for a study population that would otherwise not need antibiotics. Volunteers were administered oral ciprofloxacin 500 mg bi-daily and oral metronidazole 500 mg tri-daily for a period of 7 days. They are both very strong and indiscriminate antibiotics, having a severe impact on the gut microbiota.  One could question if this drug therapy might have a different impact on the microbiome of a healthy person compared to a patient likely to receive this treatment, i.e., one whose microbiota ecosystem is disrupted by disease or fever.

The probiotic product

A serious issue is that the authors chose a product for this study that has no demonstrated clinical benefits. At a minimum, the product used for this study should have evidence for impact on antibiotic associated conditions, including symptoms or emergence of opportunistic pathogens. The 3 (possibly 2, as the latter 2 appear to be the publication of the same data) human studies conducted on this product (here, here and here), showed no clinical benefit. Thus, the investigators tested the potential benefits of a product for which no benefits had been previously shown. Further, the papers do not adequately describe the product; only a total count (25 billion) is given; counts of each strain – through the end of the administration period – should have been provided. Furthermore, the authors state about the product that “B. longum was probably represented by two strains.” This constitutes imprecise characterization unacceptable in a well-defined probiotic product.

Appearance of author bias

The conclusions reached in the papers promote a personalized approach to probiotic use. In an article on the BBC, the lead author stated, “In the future probiotics will need to be tailored to the needs of individual patients. And in that sense just buying probiotics at the supermarket without any tailoring, without any adjustment to the host, at least in part of the population, is quite useless.” The authors did not disclose they are involved with a company promoting this personalized approach.

Probiotic colonization

The authors suggest that their finding that probiotics do not colonize long term is noteworthy. In fact, researchers in this field have known this for 30 years: most probiotics do not colonize or become established as part of the resident microbiota. A 2016 paper by Madonado-Gomez et al was notable precisely because a Bifidobacterium longum strain was found that did persist. In most cases, probiotic effects are likely mediated by transient effects.

Responders and non-responders

A well-established concept in medicine is that some people respond clinically and physiologically to interventions and others don’t. This is the case with much of probiotic as well as pharmaceutical literature. (See review on responders and non-responders to probiotics by Reid et al.) An individual’s response is likely impacted by diet, resident microbes, host genes and host physiology/health. The validity of a personalized approach to probiotic administration remains to be determined, as evidence for a clinical benefit to the approach is needed. Microbiome data alone are not sufficient.

Need for future research

In the Cell publications, the authors acknowledge their study was limited due to lack of clinical endpoints and the testing of only a single product. It is unfortunate that the press marched ahead with inflammatory stories about the negative effects of probiotics based on such paltry evidence. The scientific community understands that this is one study, on a small number of human subjects, by one research group. Sweeping conclusions cannot be made. There are many hypotheses that can be generated from this study that can lead to follow up studies, which we hope will ensue.

Conclusions

Hundreds of human trials have demonstrated clinical benefits of probiotics and several evidence-based recommendations have been issued by medical organizations. Of course, not all studies are positive. Not all probiotics work for all conditions. But the safety record of probiotics administered to healthy as well as many patient populations is well-established. Numerous media outlets have reported on these two studies as if they are proof that probiotics are useless at best and harmful at worst. This irresponsible reporting may lead people who are benefitting from probiotics to stop using them, potentially causing real harm.

The erroneous interpretation of the current study and previous research by the primary author is disingenuous, as he states,  “Contrary to the current dogma that probiotics are harmless and benefit everyone, these results reveal a new potential adverse side effect of probiotic use with antibiotics that might even bring long-term consequences.” This comment and the papers’ conclusions are not corroborated by the totality of safety and efficacy clinical evidence on probiotics, which includes thousands of probiotic-treated subjects. In comparison, the data in Suez et al come from microbiome assessments from only eight probiotic-treated subjects.

Furthermore, this paper evaluated just one product of limited provenance and containing a combination of multiple, incompletely characterized strains. This is in sharp contrast to numerous studies of precisely characterized strains demonstrating well-defined and beneficial engagements with the host. Zmora and colleagues and Suez and colleagues are to be congratulated on their attempts to characterize in detail the impact of one probiotic product on a perturbed, human microbiome. We look forward to further such studies employing well-characterized strains with demonstrated clinical benefits and including relevant clinical endpoints.

Additional reading:

Risk assessment of probiotics use requires clinical parameters

ISAPP comments: International Group of Probiotic Scientists Weighs in on Flawed Conclusions From New Scientific Papers

American Gastroenterological Association response: AGA’s Interpretation of the Latest Probiotics Research

Response by Prof. Gregor Reid:  Trying to Close the Stable Door After the Horse Has Bolted

cber

CBER to hold public workshop on regulation of biologics

FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) is convening a public workshop Sept 17 in Rockville MD on the Science & Regulation of Live Microbiome-Based Products Used to Prevent, Treat, or Cure Diseases in Humans. It is now open for registration (free). See here for the program and here for additional info.

The evidence for efficacy, the safety and the regulatory framework for probiotics other live microbiome based products will be discussed. Prof. Dan Merenstein MD, ISAPP’s current Vice President, will speak on evidence, research and clinical use of probiotics for antibiotic associated diarrhea. Although the title suggests the meeting will focus on drugs, Dr. Bob Durkin from the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) of the FDA will speak on probiotic foods and dietary supplements.

This workshop is an opportunity for stakeholders to share with FDA and NIH concerns regarding the regulatory approach to probiotics adopted by the FDA. The path for development of probiotic drugs is reasonably clear. But the road to develop probiotic foods, supplements or microbiome-based dietary strategies to compensate for deficient microbiota is less so. These products are intended to improve gut function, nutritional status, immune status, metabolic properties and more. These are legal functions for foods and supplements, but the FDA doesn’t seem to see it that way.

The FDA has for the most part has approached probiotics as drugs (Sanders et al. 2016). Since probiotics are live microbes, and since CBER deals with drugs that are derived from living sources, CBER often oversees human research on probiotics. But there is no mechanism within CBER to oversee foods and supplements, and hence, human research on probiotics tends to be shunted into the investigational new drug (IND) process. But, the legal definitions of drugs and foods overlap – both can impact the structure/function of the human body and both can reduce the risk of disease. So conducting such research on probiotic foods – and not as part of the IND rubric – should be possible. Perhaps progress on this front can be achieved in the CBER workshop in September.

In a press announcement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb MD shared FDA perspective on probiotics and promoted this CBER conference. A couple of issues are noteworthy in this announcement by Gottlieb. First, the term ‘probiotic’ is used. Over the years, the FDA largely avoided use of this term, instead favoring the term live biotherapeutic product (LBP). But these terms are not synonymous. Probiotic is defined as a live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confers a health benefit on the host (Hill et al. 2014). It spans multiple regulatory categories. A LBP is by definition a drug. The fact that Gottlieb used the term ‘probiotic’ may signal that he recognizes that not all probiotics are drugs. Second, Gottlieb’s announcement shows awareness that probiotics are legitimate components in foods and dietary supplements and states that the FDA is “committed to working with industry on efforts to provide information that can help consumers make more informed choices about these products.” This is a welcome statement to many researchers involved in probiotic foods and supplements in the United States. It suggests that the FDA is willing to look beyond probiotics as LBPs and develop regulatory approaches for research and claims appropriate to foods and supplements.

Innovation in this field, which has the potential to benefit many people globally, requires regulatory approaches that do not obstruct. Participation in this workshop may lead to improvements that both protect public safety and facilitate academic and industry researchers in the United States on the path to discovery.

 

Additional information:

Sanders ME, Shane AL, Merenstein DJ. Advancing Probiotic Research in Humans the United States: Challenges and strategies. Gut Microbes 7(2):97-100.

Warning letter from CBER: Dietary Supplements Containing Live Bacteria or Yeast in Immunocompromised Persons: Warning – Risk of Invasive Fungal Disease. Posted 12/09/2014.

definition

ISAPP conducts webinar on definitions in microbiome space for ILSI-North America Gut Microbiome Committee

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders presented a webinar July 23, 2018 – covering basic definitions of microbiota-mediated terminology – to the ILSI-North America Gut Microbiome Committee, which you can listen to here. The objective was to update the committee about terms with clear and actionable consensus definitions in the microbiome space. ISAPP is committed to proper use of terms such as ‘probiotics’ and ‘prebiotics’, as evidenced by the consensus panels it has convened (see here and here) on these topics. Definitions of some newly emerging terms such as postbiotic, abiotic, and probioceuticals are less clear.

Some issues covered in this webinar include comparison with historic definitions, minimum criteria for commercial probiotic and prebiotic products, contrasting probiotic food with fermented food, and a brief discussion of imminent taxonomy changes for the genus, Lactobacillus.

The webinar is now available here.

2018_Singpaore

ISAPP’s First Meeting in Asia is a Huge Success

June 5-7th 2018 ISAPP held it’s first Asian meeting in Singapore. This open registration meeting was a huge success with over 240 attendees from 34 countries.

Two days of plenary talks focused on the latest science featuring prebiotic and probiotic use in: pediatrics, oral health, allergy immunotherapy, the gut microbiome throughout life, synbiotics, liver disease, honey bee health, chronic gut disorders, and more. The meeting also featured an interesting talk about the changes coming in the nomenclature of the genus Lactobaccilus.

The plenary, open sessions were followed by a Discussion Forum on June 7th for invited experts and Industry Members. The discussion groups focused on:

  • Harmonizing Global Probiotic and Prebiotic Food/Supplement Regulation
  • Fermented Foods for Health: East Meets West
  • Potential Value of Probiotics and Prebiotics to Treat or Prevent Serious Medical Issues in Developing Countries
  • Prebiotics as Ingredients: How Foods, Fibres and Delivery Methods Influence Functionality

Finally, there were over 70 posters presented at the meeting featuring the latest prebiotic and probiotic research from around the world.

Next year, ISAPP will be hosting an invite-only meeting in Antwerp, Belgium – May 14-16, 2019. To attend this meeting, join ISAPP as an Industry Member.

      

karen_scott

ISAPP’s Outgoing President: Karen Scott

Dr. Karen Scott of the Rowett Institute of the University of Aberdeen has served as the ISAPP President for the last three years. During her time as President, ISAPP has seen some incredible growth and accomplishments, and the organization is so grateful for her leadership.

Last year, under Karen’s leadership, ISAPP produced a prebiotic consensus panel paper, which remains one of the highest cited papers in nature reviews gastroenterology and hepatology.

In addition, over the last three years the Science Translation Committee has produced nine infographics, four videos, monthly blog posts, and a monthly newsletter focused on disseminating clinical and consumer information on probiotics and prebiotics.

Karen led three successful ISAPP Annual Meetings – Turku in 2016, Chicago in 2017, and ISAPP’s first meeting in Asia which took place in Singapore in 2018. All of these meetings followed her acting as local host for the 2014 ISAPP meeting in Aberdeen.

ISAPP’s mission to educate resulted in numerous outreach activities over the last three years including continuing education opportunities, webinars, the USP expert panel on probiotics, and regulator engagements. In terms of advancing the science, under Karen’s leadership ISAPP has published 21 peer-reviewed articles on probiotics and prebiotics.

Finally, industry involvement in ISAPP has remained strong and steady during Karen’s term, with 40-45 industry members from around the world. These industry members support ISAPP’s activities and participate in the annual meeting each year to hear about the latest probiotic and prebiotic science available.

Thank you so much Karen for your dedication and hard work to advance scientific excellence in probiotics and prebiotics.

ISAPP to host live webinar: Microbial metabolism associated with health

Update April 16, 2018:  Recording and slides from the webinar available here.

The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), in partnership with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Europe’s Prebiotics and Functional Foods Task Forces, has jointly organized a free webinar, titled Microbial Metabolism Associated with Health. The webinar runs April 12th, 2018 at 15:00 CET, and will highlight recent activities of both ISAPP and ILSI on the beneficial aspects of gut microbial fermentation. The specific focus will be on gut microbiota functions, the effects of the intestinal microbiota on selected nutrients and non-nutrients, and the health benefits of fermented foods. Scientists from both academia and industry may find the webinar of interest. Sign up here.

Webinar participants will learn the status of the science making the links between live microorganisms in the diet and host health. The host gut microbiota is a key factor in determining gut function, nutritional status, biochemical transformations of food and the overall impact on health. This diverse microbial community inhabiting the human gut assists in food metabolism and contributes to the bio-availability of nutrients and non-nutrients; it also has an extensive metabolic repertoire that complements mammalian enzymes in the liver and gut mucosa. Microbial metabolism is an important factor to consider when discussing the management of host health and conditions such as obesity and metabolic syndrome.

The enhanced nutritional and functional properties of fermented foods are being increasingly recognized; not only do microbes transform the substrates and form bioactive or bioavailable end-products, but also, fermented foods contain live microorganisms genetically similar to the strains found in probiotics. The webinar will cover the possible interactions of fermented foods and beverages with the gut microbiota, and potential links to health.

The 90-minute live webinar will be hosted on StreamGo, and will include a question and answer period at the end. There is no cost; however, participants are required to register online beforehand.

Speakers:

  • Effects of the Intestinal Microbiota on Selected Dietary Components
    a) Introduction and Background to the Activity (Dr. Colette Shortt, Johnson & Johnson, UK)
    b) Impact of Intestinal Metabolism and Findings (Prof. Ian Rowland, University of Reading, UK)
  • Health Benefits of Fermented Foods: Microbiota and Beyond (Prof. Robert Hutkins, University of Nebraska, USA)

 

Publications from ISAPP and ILSI-Europe related to the webinar topics:

stool sample for lab

Microbiome Analysis – Hype or Helpful?

By Karen Scott, PhD, Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

Since we have realized that we carry around more microbial than human cells, and that these microbial inhabitants are important to maintain our health, searching for the bacterial species that are implicated in causing disease has become the holy grail of microbiology. However, to understand which bacteria are present or absent in a disease state, we first have to understand what constitutes normal. This is hampered by the fact that we are all different – and our microbial communities are also all different. In fact, the faecal bacterial community in samples taken months apart from one person will be identifiable as coming from that specific healthy adult, but the community will be quite distinct from samples from any other healthy adult. In the same way, the microbial community of two individuals suffering from the same disease will be different.

Despite these differences, scientists have managed to establish some facts over the past 15 years. Too many Proteobacteria, which includes Enterobacteria and E.coli, in your large intestine is not generally good news. Firstly, it means that conditions in the large intestine are probably not oxygen-free, as they should be. Secondly, an expansion in these populations usually means a decline in something else – after all food and places to live are finite resources. Bacterial diversity in the adult intestine is also important. The main factor that has been found across many different diseases is that bacterial diversity is lower in diseased individuals than their healthy counterparts. This does not necessarily mean that a low diversity is causing the disease, as various features of the disease (including any antibiotic therapy, inflammation, decreased or increased transit time) may all themselves affect the diversity of the microbiota.

Although scientists have not succeeded in defining a ‘healthy microbiota,’ there is an increasing trend to get your microbiome tested. Microbiome companies are bombarding us with offers to send in a small sample and find out about your gut microbiota, for a price. So, should you?

This really depends why you want to know, and what level of detail of analysis is being offered. Remember the orders of taxonomy? Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.  Some companies identify the bacteria in your faeces only to the phylum level. This is a taxonomic level above the level needed to differentiate mammals and fish (these are ‘classes’). If you told someone that there were more fish in the Indian Ocean than mammals would this be a surprise? It would be such an expected fact it would be meaningless. This is similar to describing the microbiota at a phylum level – Bacteroidetes numbers versus Firmicutes numbers. Such numbers are meaningless. However, continuing the fish analogy, if you said that there were more mackerel than tuna in the North Atlantic Ocean this becomes a bit more meaningful. The fisherman immediately knows what type of fish he is more likely to catch, and perhaps even which net to use. The same is true of the microbiome. Telling someone that he/she has a lot of Enterobacteria and few Roseburia is actually useful as we know from studies that this represents an abnormal balance of bacteria and something should be done to redress this. Yet the bottom line health consequence of this abnormal balance of bacteria remains to be determined. So getting your gut microbiome sequenced could be useful – depending on what level of information you will receive, and what you are prepared to do about it.

And so we come to the next problem. Having established what your gut microbiota is, how are you going to make it better? And will that make YOU better? At the moment scientists don’t really have a good answer to these questions. Specific prebiotics can certainly be useful to increase the numbers of some bacteria generally assumed to be beneficial – such as Bifidobacterium, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and even Roseburia species. But it is not really clear what the exact health benefits of such an increase in bacterial numbers would be. Health claims on prebiotics are currently limited to ‘improve intestinal transit’ and ‘lower the glycaemic response’. If you found out that your microbiota had a low diversity, increasing the variety of foods in your diet, in particular the fibre component, could certainly improve this. Our gut microbiota basically relies on our undigested food to survive, so providing a greater amount and more types of food containing fibre and prebiotics will definitely encourage populations of diverse bacteria to expand. In addition to improving digestive health, fibre fermentation by gut bacteria also results in the production of microbial products that have been shown to have health benefits.

So by all means get your gut microbiome analyzed if you want to, but perhaps instead, save your money and just increase your prebiotic and fibre consumption, which will increase levels of the potentially beneficial bacteria that are already there in your gut.

Recommended reading

Why microbiome tests are currently of limited value for your clinical practice

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!

bowl of yogurt with strawberries

Advice from a Nutritionist:  Eat More Fermented Foods.

September 2017. By Christopher Cifelli, PhD, VP of Nutrition Research, National Dairy Council.

Whenever I tell someone that I have a degree in nutrition science, I usually get asked, “Are carbs bad?” or “Should I avoid added sugars?” Rarely do I get asked “What should I be eating more of?” While vegetables, fruits, dairy and whole grains would all be perfectly suitable answers to that question, my go-to response is fermented foods.

Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years. Fermentation is the process of using specific microbes – for example, bacteria, yeast, and molds – to transform one food into another. For example, the fermentation process transforms milk into yogurt. Fermented foods are unique because they can contain live microbes, which can confer health benefits beyond simple nutrition. For instance, did you know that the microbes in fermented foods can help inhibit pathogen growth in the gut? Or, that eating certain fermented foods, such as yogurt, is associated with reduced chronic disease risk?

Government organizations across the globe provide dietary recommendations to help guide people choose the type of foods or diets that promote health. Commonalities include eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes and dairy. Another commonality – albeit a disconcerting one – is the lack of a recommendation for consuming fermented foods even though fermented foods, including red wine, kimchi, soya, and yogurt are key parts of healthy diet patterns.

Several recent publications have discussed the need to encourage the consumption of foods that can directly and beneficially impact our gut microbiota to improve overall health (e.g., Bell et al. or Gordon et al.). Identifying and consuming foods that can selectively impact the microbiota to benefit the host health should be a priority.

The time is now. Health professionals should review available evidence to determine how fermented foods fit into dietary recommendations to promote a healthy microbiota. They should encourage the public to increase their consumption of fermented foods to support the health of their microbiota and body. That way, the next time any of us are asked “What should I be eating” we can point to dietary recommendations and say — Fermented Foods!

Read more on fermented foods here and here.