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Bacterial vesicles: Emerging potential postbiotics

By Dr. Gabriel Vinderola, PhD,  Associate Professor of Microbiology at the Faculty of Chemical Engineering from the National University of Litoral and Principal Researcher from CONICET at Dairy Products Institute (CONICET-UNL), Santa Fe, Argentina

The recently published ISAPP consensus paper defines a postbiotic as “a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host“. Such a definition quickly brings to mind that a postbiotic is not equivalent to microbial metabolites. A postbiotic should also contain inanimate microbial cells or cell fragments. Metabolites or fermentation products may be present, but they are not required.

Because microbes are complex entities, we must be open to innovative understandings of what a postbiotic might entail. Indeed, although not explicitly mentioned in the ISAPP consensus paper, extracellular membrane vesicles may comprise an innovative conceptualization of a postbiotic, falling within the ‘cell component’ part of the postbiotic definition.

Bacterial vesicles

Extracellular membrane vesicles (EMV) are universal carriers of biological information produced in all domains of life. Bacterial EMV are small, spheroidal, membrane-derived proteoliposomal nanostructures, typically ranging from 25 – 250 nm in diameter, containing proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, metabolites, numerous surface molecules and many other biomolecules derived from their progenitor bacteria (Figure 1). Bacterial vesicles have been known for more than 50 years as structures able to carry cellular material (Ñahui Palomino et al. 2021).  However, studies on membrane vesicles derived from Gram-positive bacteria are more recent as it was for a time believed they were incapable of producing vesicles due to their thick and complex cell walls, and the lack of an outer membrane. Today, EMVs have been isolated from Gram-positive probiotic bacteria, including those belonging to the Lactobacillaceae family (under which Lactobacillus was recently split into many new genera) and the Bifidobacterium genus. In probiotic bacteria, vesicles may mediate quorum sensing and material exchange. Perhaps even more important, they can act as mediators of bacteria-to-cell and bacteria-to-bacteria interactions. As bacterial EMV are inanimate structures that cannot replicate, they fit the postbiotic definiton as cell components as long as other criteria stipulated by the definition are met.

Figure 1. Membrane vesicles budding on the surface of L. reuteri DSM 17938 and released into the surrounding medium. These vesicles were described in by Grande et al. 2017. Photo used with permission of BioGaia.

Functions of bacterial vesicles related to potential health benefits

Underlying mechanisms and corresponding molecules driving health effects of bacterial vesicles are not well understood, in part due to reliance on in vitro models. Bacterial EMV derived from Lactobacillaceae spp., Bifidobacterium spp., and Akkermansia spp. have been reported to alleviate metabolic syndrome and allergy symptoms, promote T-cell activation and IgA production, strengthen gut barrier function, and exhibit anti-viral and immunomodulatory properties (Kim et al. 2016; Tan et al. 2018; Ashrafian et al. 2019; Molina-Tijeras et al. 2019; Palomino et al. 2019; Shehata et al. 2019; Bäuerl et al. 2020). Interestingly, vesicles from Limosilactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 (West et al. 2020) and Lacticaseibacillus casei BL23 (Domínguez Rubio et al. 2017) may accomplish some of the the effects of these probiotic bacteria. In fact it is not unreasonable to think that EMVs may be already present and active in probiotic products.

Challenges for bacterial vesicle production

To develop a postbiotic from microbial EMVs, many challenges need to be overcome.  Defining optimal cultivation conditions, and methods for vesicle release, isolation and scaling up are some of the challenges of bacterial vesicle production. There are several studies showing that altering the cultivation parameters can impact vesicle production. Examples of treatments shown to increase vesicle release include exposure to UV radiation and antibiotic pressure (Gamalier et al. 2017; Gill et al. 2019). Exposure to glycine has also been shown to increase vesicle production (Hirayama & Nakao 2020). Interventions during culture, for example by introducing agitation and varying pH, can possibly be ways to potentiate vesicle release and increase their bioactivity (Müller et al. 2021). A recent report also revealed that B. longum NCC2705 released a myriad of vesicles when cultured in human fecal fermentation broth, but not in basal GAM anaerobic medium (Figure 1). Moreover, the B. longum vesicle production pattern differed among individual fecal samples suggesting that metabolites derived from symbiotic microbiota stimulate the active production of vesicles in a different manner (Nishiyama et al. 2020). Whether any of these treatments and culture conditions are general or strain specific remains to be elucidated. Large differences in the number of vesicles that may be obtained by different extraction methods can occur (Tian et al. 2020). Tangential flow filtration or the use of antibodies targeting specific epitopes of the vesicles are some of the options proposed for the large scale isolation of EMV (Klimentová & Stulík 2015).

Figure 2. Left: Bifidobacterium longum NCC2705 grown on GAM broth. Right: secretion of membrane vesicles by Bifidobacterium longum NCC2705: the strain was cultured in bacterial-free human fecal fermentation broth and secreted a myriad of membrane vesicles. Reported and adapted from Nishiyama et al. 2020.

Progress has been made on the production of bacterial vesicles in recent years, yet several issues remain to be clarified including how vesicles are generated from the progenitor microbe, how the composition of vesicles changes according to the culture conditions, how to target specific bacterial vesicle purification from a pool of vesicles derived from other organisms (for example, bacterial vesicles produced in milky media can be accompanied by vesicles from eukaryotic cells present in the milk), safety aspects, quantification methods and the regulation of their use by the corresponding authority.

Their future as potential postbiotics

Membrane vesicles are an exciting opportunity for the development of postbiotics. A potential benefit of vesicles is that their small size compared to whole cells may enable them to more readily migrate to host tissues that could not be otherwise reached by a whole cell (Kulp & Kuehn 2010). Their nanostructure enables them to penetrate through the gut barrier and to be delivered to previously unreachable sites through the bloodstream or lymphatic vessels, and to interact with different cell types (Jones et al. 2020). For example, bacterial rRNA and rDNA found in the bloodstream and the brain of Alzheimer’s patients were postulated to have originated from bacteria vesicles (Park et al. 2017). Safety of EMVs must be carefully considered and assessed, even if they are derived from microbes generally recognized as safe, as their small size may increase penetration capacity with potential and yet unknown systemic effects. Novel postbiotics derived from microbial membrane vesicles is an intriguing area for future research to better understand production parameters, safety and functionality.

Thanks to Cheng Chung Yong, postdoctoral researcher at Morinaga Milk Industry Co., LTD (Japan) and Ludwig Lundqvist, industrial PhD student at BioGaia AB (Sweden) for their contributions to this blog, and Mary Ellen Sanders and Sarah Lebeer from ISAPP for fruitful discussions.

References

Ashrafian, F., Shahriary, A., Behrouzi, A., Moradi, H.R., Keshavarz Azizi Raftar, S., Lari, A., Hadifar, S., Yaghoubfar, R., Ahmadi Badi, S., Khatami, S. and Vaziri, F., 2019. Akkermansia muciniphila-derived extracellular vesicles as a mucosal delivery vector for amelioration of obesity in mice. Frontiers in microbiology10, p.2155.

Bäuerl, C., Coll-Marqués, J.M., Tarazona-González, C. and Pérez-Martínez, G., 2020. Lactobacillus casei extracellular vesicles stimulate EGFR pathway likely due to the presence of proteins P40 and P75 bound to their surface. Scientific reports10(1), pp.1-12.

Domínguez Rubio, A.P., Martínez, J.H., Martínez Casillas, D.C., Coluccio Leskow, F., Piuri, M. and Pérez, O.E., 2017. Lactobacillus casei BL23 produces microvesicles carrying proteins that have been associated with its probiotic effect. Frontiers in microbiology8, p.1783.

Gamalier, J.P., Silva, T.P., Zarantonello, V., Dias, F.F. and Melo, R.C., 2017. Increased production of outer membrane vesicles by cultured freshwater bacteria in response to ultraviolet radiation. Microbiological research194, pp.38-46.

Grande, R., Celia, C., Mincione, G., Stringaro, A., Di Marzio, L., Colone, M., Di Marcantonio, M.C., Savino, L., Puca, V., Santoliquido, R. and Locatelli, M., 2017. Detection and physicochemical characterization of membrane vesicles (MVs) of Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938. Frontiers in microbiology8, p.1040.

Gill, S., Catchpole, R. & Forterre, P., 2019. Extracellular membrane vesicles in the three domains of life and beyond. FEMS microbiology reviews, 43(3), pp.273–303.

Hirayama, S. & Nakao, R., 2020. Glycine significantly enhances bacterial membrane vesicle production: a powerful approach for isolation of LPS-reduced membrane vesicles of probiotic Escherichia coli. Microbial biotechnology, 13(4), pp.1162–1178.

Jones, E.J., Booth, C., Fonseca, S., Parker, A., Cross, K., Miquel-Clopés, A., Hautefort, I., Mayer, U., Wileman, T., Stentz, R. and Carding, S.R., 2020. The uptake, trafficking, and biodistribution of Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron generated outer membrane vesicles. Frontiers in microbiology11, p.57.

Kim, J.H., Jeun, E.J., Hong, C.P., Kim, S.H., Jang, M.S., Lee, E.J., Moon, S.J., Yun, C.H., Im, S.H., Jeong, S.G. and Park, B.Y., 2016. Extracellular vesicle–derived protein from Bifidobacterium longum alleviates food allergy through mast cell suppression. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology137(2), pp.507-516.

Kulp, A. & Kuehn, M.J., 2010. Biological functions and biogenesis of secreted bacterial outer membrane vesicles. Annual review of microbiology, 64, pp.163–184.

Molina-Tijeras, J.A., Gálvez, J. & Rodríguez-Cabezas, M.E., 2019. The immunomodulatory properties of extracellular vesicles derived from probiotics: a novel approach for the management of gastrointestinal diseases. Nutrients, 11(5), p.1038.

Müller, L., Kuhn, T., Koch, M. and Fuhrmann, G., 2021. Stimulation of probiotic bacteria induces release of membrane vesicles with augmented anti-inflammatory activity. ACS Applied Bio Materials4(5), pp.3739-3748.

Ñahui Palomino, R.A., Vanpouille, C., Costantini, P.E. and Margolis, L., 2021. Microbiota–host communications: Bacterial extracellular vesicles as a common language. PLoS Pathogens17(5), p.e1009508.

Nishiyama, K., Takaki, T., Sugiyama, M., Fukuda, I., Aiso, M., Mukai, T., Odamaki, T., Xiao, J. Z., Osawa, R., & Okada, N. 2020. Extracellular vesicles produced by Bifidobacterium longum export mucin-binding proteins. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 86(19), e01464-20.

Palomino, R.A.Ñ., Vanpouille, C., Laghi, L., Parolin, C., Melikov, K., Backlund, P., Vitali, B. and Margolis, L., 2019. Extracellular vesicles from symbiotic vaginal lactobacilli inhibit HIV-1 infection of human tissues. Nature communications10(1), pp.1-14.

Park, J.Y., Choi, J., Lee, Y., Lee, J.E., Lee, E.H., Kwon, H.J., Yang, J., Jeong, B.R., Kim, Y.K. and Han, P.L., 2017. Metagenome analysis of bodily microbiota in a mouse model of Alzheimer disease using bacteria-derived membrane vesicles in blood. Experimental neurobiology26(6), p.369.

Shehata, M.M., Mostafa, A., Teubner, L., Mahmoud, S.H., Kandeil, A., Elshesheny, R., Boubak, T.A., Frantz, R., Pietra, L.L., Pleschka, S. and Osman, A., 2019. Bacterial outer membrane vesicles (omvs)-based dual vaccine for influenza a h1n1 virus and mers-cov. Vaccines7(2), p.46.

Tan, K., Li, R., Huang, X. and Liu, Q., 2018. Outer membrane vesicles: current status and future direction of these novel vaccine adjuvants. Frontiers in microbiology9, p.783.

Tian, Y., Gong, M., Hu, Y., Liu, H., Zhang, W., Zhang, M., Hu, X., Aubert, D., Zhu, S., Wu, L. and Yan, X., 2020. Quality and efficiency assessment of six extracellular vesicle isolation methods by nano-flow cytometry. Journal of extracellular vesicles9(1), p.1697028.

West, C.L., Stanisz, A.M., Mao, Y.K., Champagne-Jorgensen, K., Bienenstock, J. and Kunze, W.A., 2020. Microvesicles from Lactobacillus reuteri (DSM-17938) completely reproduce modulation of gut motility by bacteria in mice. PloS one15(1

Can dietary supplements be used safely and reliably in vulnerable populations?

By Dr. Greg Leyer, Sr. Director – Scientific Affairs, Chr. Hansen, Inc., Madison, WI and Prof. Dan Merenstein, Department of Family Medicine, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington DC

What is it that doctors look for when recommending or prescribing therapies to patients? If it is a drug, a supplement, a new diet, or even a new exercise regimen, they look for safety and efficacy. There are of course other things to consider, including cost, ease of administration, and patient compliance, among others. But safety and efficacy are their foremost concerns.

A recently published clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (Poindexter 2021) examined the evidence for probiotics to prevent morbidity and mortality in preterm infants. They concluded that probiotics could not be recommended. This differs from conclusions of the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) (Su et al. 2020), which recommended specific probiotic strains for preterm (less than 37 weeks gestational age) and low birth weight infants. The AAP report also differs from the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) (Van den Akker et al. 2020), which recommends specific strains for this use, although their recommendations are not fully aligned with AGA’s (see What’s a Clinician to do When the Probiotic Recommendations from Medical Organizations Do Not Agree?).

The AAP report does a thorough job of reviewing data on use of probiotics in the NICU, including conflicting studies, lack of confirmatory studies of efficacious strains, and safety and cross contamination inside the NICU. However, the overriding theme of the report is “clinicians must be aware of the lack of regulatory standards for commercially available probiotic preparations manufactured as dietary supplements and the potential for contamination with pathogenic species.” Therefore, at the heart of the AAP failure to recommend probiotics is the concern that the quality of available products is insufficient. Because of the absence of a pharmaceutical-grade probiotic product for use in the United States, they posit, they cannot recommend usage. It is noteworthy that the trials performed on premature infants resulting in multiple conclusions of safety and efficacy have thus far utilized probiotic products manufactured as dietary supplements.

Probiotics can be marketed as drugs if they follow that regulatory pathway, but generally in the US they are sold under the regulatory classification of dietary supplements. Is the AAP correct that no dietary supplement is of sufficient quality to recommend for use in preterm infants?

Quality of probiotic dietary supplement probiotics. Dietary supplements were a category of product developed to supplement the diet of the generally healthy population, not to treat or prevent disease. In practice this is an important distinction, because while the safety standard is high for dietary supplements for healthy individuals (see comments by food safety expert Jim Heimbach here), such supplements do not need to be established as safe for patient populations. But in the case of probiotics, many clinical trials have evaluated safety and efficacy for prevention or treatment of disease, more aligned with drug uses. Yet probiotic products supported by these data are not marketed in the US as drugs.

It is a common misperception that dietary supplements are “not regulated”. However, the FDA has clear good manufacturing practices (GMP’s) and regulations dedicated to dietary supplement manufacturing.  The onus is on manufacturers to establish appropriate product specifications based on intended use and risk. Reputable manufactures establish rigorous purity, strength, and identity quality standards consistent with the intended population and sufficient for that use. Products intended for infants, including premature infants, should be manufactured under quality standards more rigorous than those intended for a healthy adult population. For example, Chr. Hansen bases the enhanced specifications for products aimed at infants, and preterm infants, on elements of Codex standards for infant formula, amongst other stringent microbiological criteria. This would include manufacturing the probiotic strain to an “infant” grade, employing stricter environmental monitoring, sanitation, and airflow control throughout the process, careful selection of raw ingredients for infant compatibility, and enhanced testing and purity standards using validated methods at every step. The internal manufacturing standards that Chr. Hansen applies for products intended for infants, and preterm infants, are much stricter than typical dietary supplement standards, and are appropriate for their intended use.

Therefore, there are high quality, safe probiotic products produced under dietary supplement regulations even though such products do not carry any label statement claiming this added level of quality. However, products sourced for hospitals to stock in formularies could work with the supplier to demand this extra level of product testing specifications. Pharmacies can institute quality agreements with vendors that would delineate their expectations for the strains present, the levels of live microbes acceptable in the final product, etc. This agreement could also mandate that any product change – as defined in the agreement – would require the vendor to notify the customer. Such an agreement might be burdensome for a hospital pharmacist, but a sophisticated dietary supplement company should be able to assure the hospital formulary of their quality.

Products made using strict specifications, geared towards infant and premature infant applications, are on the market and are safely being used in this patient population in many NICUs and as part of infant formulas. We disagree with AAP’s position that a pharmaceutical approach is needed, as long as a product of sufficient quality can be provided. To deny preterm infants probiotics, which have a significant chance of improving their clinical outcomes, is not in line with other medical recommendations. Instead, the hospital formularies should stock products that have been scrutinized for sufficient evidence of safety and efficacy. Suppliers of stocked products should provide product testing results, a description of the quality standards employed during production, and a rationale for the suitability of the standards for preterm infants. Third party verification of adherence to these quality standards would assure medical professionals regarding the safety of these products for use.

References

CAC/RCP 66-2008. Code of hygienic practice for powdered formulae for infants and young children. Codex.

Poindexter, B. 2021. Use of Probiotics in Preterm Infants. Pediatrics 147 (6): e202 1051485.

Su et al. 2020. AGA Clinical Practice Guidelines on the Role of Probiotics in the Management of Gastrointestinal Disorders. Gastroenterology 159:697-705.

Van den Akker et al.  2020. Probiotics and Preterm Infants: A Position Paper by the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition and the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition Working Group for Probiotics and Prebiotics. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 70(5):664-680.

 

 

Pharmacists as influencers of probiotic use

By Kristina Campbell, science writer

It’s not an uncommon scene in a pharmacy: someone standing in front of the shelf of probiotic products, picking up various bottles and reading the labels, looking uncertain. The person’s doctor may have recommended a certain brand of probiotic to prevent diarrhea with a prescribed course of antibiotics—but they’ve just noticed that the store-brand probiotic, with different strains, is half the price.

Dragana Skokovic-Sunjic

According to Dragana Skokovic-Sunjic, clinical pharmacist and author of the ‘Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in Canada/US’, pharmacists can play an important and influential role helping patients make informed decisions about the available products. “Pharmacists provide a ‘last check validation’ before the patient actually decides to purchase a product,” she says. “And we proactively seek to assist those patients who need help.”

Nardine Nakhla

Nardine Nakhla, clinical pharmacist and Clinical Lecturer at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy, says pharmacists often have the knowledge and experience to zero in on which over-the-counter product(s) will or will not work for a certain individual. “Pharmacists have the knowledge and skills to individualize the recommendation based on patient-specific and disease-specific factors, and that is so very important with non-prescription and natural health products because there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” she says.

Can pharmacists apply their knowledge and skills to make specific probiotic recommendations? While it can be hard to narrow the evidence down on specific products, pharmacists can certainly play a role in helping patients understand the evidence for the products they encounter. In a recent interview with ISAPP, Skokovic-Sunjic and Nakhla explained why pharmacists in Canada and elsewhere have the potential to steer people’s choice of over-the-counter and natural health products – including probiotics.

Pharmacists have knowledge about the products on their shelves.

“Advising patients on self-care, which includes over-the-counter and natural health product use, is a key responsibility of Canadian pharmacists. We have North American survey data that shows, for patients who go out and buy non-prescription and natural health products, over 80% never read the label,” says Nakhla.

This means that having a pharmacist available at the point-of-purchase to answer questions can go a long way toward educating people about what’s actually in their hands and how to optimize use, if warranted.

“Having the pharmacist present lets you access somebody who can help inform your decisions—someone who can perhaps steer you away from products that may not be appropriate for you,” she says.

“Pharmacists need to be familiar with the products they are selling at their pharmacies,” adds Skokovic-Sunjic. “They are skilled at asking suitable questions to ensure the patient’s needs and wishes are understood and then to help them choose appropriate over-the-counter, ‘self-selection’ therapy.”

Pharmacists are unique in having non-prescription products within their standards of practice.

As a faculty member at the school of pharmacy, Nakhla emphasizes the requirement for pharmacists to know how to assess and manage patients seeking self-care in the community. She says, “We have a unique body of knowledge where we study non-prescription therapeutics and other self-care measures of disease management and health maintenance,” she says. “Pharmacists are trained to know about these and to recommend evidence-based and cost-effective measures individualized for each patient.”

“It’s explicitly stated under our Standards of Practice that we must be proficient in providing information on non-prescription products, natural health products, and on non-pharmacological measures to enable patients to receive the intended benefit of the therapies, whereas physicians are far more focused on the diagnosis and prescription therapies,” she says.

Pharmacists can identify patients who could benefit from probiotics

Both Nakhla and Skokovic-Sunjic emphasize that pharmacists frequently identify people who could potentially benefit from self-care products, even if they don’t come in looking for them.

Nakhla mentions the probiotic guide authored by Skokovic-Sunjic, and how it helps pharmacists provide helpful solutions to common problems that present in the community. “I think a good strategy is looking at the conditions listed in the probiotic guide and the subsequent products indicated for use for them, and then work backwards to try to identify patients who may benefit from the listed therapies, rather than just wait for them to present asking you questions.”

Pharmacists are in a position to encourage prevention.

“Pharmacy has historically focused on providing reactive healthcare rather than proactive or preventative care,” says Nakhla. But this has recently changed, with a growing emphasis on preventing chronic disease through ongoing health maintenance and self-care strategies. She cites pharmacists as qualified health professionals who encounter many generally healthy people throughout the course of their day, and who are therefore well-positioned to advise the public on how to remain healthy.

Skokovic-Sunjic gives some examples: “If the consumer will be travelling, we might suggest a specific probiotic to prevent traveller’s diarrhea. Or if we are coming to the cold and flu season, we may recommend a product they can take to reduce the risk of developing common infectious diseases.”

Pharmacists can conduct brief or lengthy assessments before providing recommendations.

Skokovic-Sunjic says, “A pharmacist can provide specific recommendations that could really make a big difference in the patient’s experience by quickly asking a few targeted questions. This strategy may save the patient time, money, frustration and sub-optimal health outcomes. When consumers self-select inappropriate products, they will not experience benefits they seek. Determined to choose a natural product, some consumers will try a second or even third product but will not get the symptom relief they are looking for. An unintended consequence of this is that the patient may dismiss the probiotics as ineffective not because they did not work, but because it was the wrong product for the desired effect.”

Brief assessment questions are especially important for probiotics, she adds, because specificity can ‘make or break’ how useful they are to an individual. “In my consultations with patients, I quite often include questions about bowel movements and I know they are questioning why I am asking. Understanding gut function can be extremely helpful in providing appropriate probiotic recommendations.”

Pharmacists can help people understand the concept of ‘evidence-based’.

Nakhla acknowledges it’s difficult for the average person to confront a shelf of probiotic products and delineate between the ones that have evidence backing their use, and the ones that do not. “That’s where I really think a pharmacist needs to intervene and to help them balance out the pros and the cons,” she says.

“If patients are looking for a probiotic to relieve a specific symptom, then looking for an evidence-based recommendation for that specific symptom is needed,” says Skokovic-Sunjic. “If they pick something that’s not supported by evidence, it may not provide symptom relief or the benefit they expect. This may be in addition to wasted funds and mounting frustration.”

Thus, pharmacists are in a unique position to contribute to enhanced awareness about efficacy and “evidence-based self-care” as they explain these concepts to consumers at the point of sale.

 

Given all the potential ways for pharmacists to guide consumer decisions about probiotics, both Skokovic-Sunjic and Nakhla agree that keeping up on the latest probiotic evidence is of high importance.

Through ISAPP’s new efforts to engage with pharmacists, the organization plans to gauge how pharmacists in various parts of the world approach probiotic recommendations, and to support the ‘best case scenario’ of pharmacists providing evidence-based information about probiotics directly to consumers.

Sign up here for ISAPP’s newsletter for pharmacists.

Follow up from ISAPP webinar – Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods: how to implement ISAPP consensus definitions

By Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, Executive Science Officer, ISAPP

On the heels of the most recent ISAPP consensus paper – this one on postbiotics – ISAPP sponsored a webinar for industry members titled Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods: how to implement ISAPP consensus definitions. This webinar featured short presentations outlining definitions and key attributes of these five substances. Ample time remained for the 10 ISAPP board members to field questions from attendees.

When considering the definitions, it’s important to remember that the definition is a starting point – not all criteria can be included. Using the probiotic definition as an example, Prof. Colin Hill noted that the definition is only 15 words – Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. This is a useful definition, stipulating the core characteristics of a probiotic. However, important criteria such as safety and identity are not specified in the definition yet are clearly delineated in the full paper on probiotics.

Several interesting topics emerged from this discussion, which will be explored in future blog posts. These include:

  • What is meant by host health? Microbe mediated benefits are numerous. But not all benefits are a benefit to host health. Benefits for user appearance, pets and potentially livestock may be measurable, economically important and desirable, but may not encompass ‘host health’.
  • What types of endpoints are appropriate for studies to meet the requirement of a health benefit? Endpoints that indicate improved health (such as symptom alleviation, reduced incidence of infections or quality of life measures) are targeted. Some physiological measures that may be linked to health (such as increased fecal short chain fatty acids or changes in microbiota composition) may not be sufficient.
  • What are the regulatory implications from these definitions? As suggested by the National Law Review article on the ISAPP consensus definitions, attorneys are interested in the scientific positions on how these terms are defined and characterized. Further, some regulatory actions – such as by Codex Alimentarius in defining probiotics – are underway. ISAPP is open to suggestions about the best way to communicate these definitions to regulators.
  • Is any follow-up by ISAPP to these papers anticipated in order to clarify criteria and provide simple guidance to their implementation?

Simple guidance to these substances can be found in the infographics: probiotics, probiotic criteria, prebiotics, fermented foodshow are probiotic foods and fermented foods different, synbiotics, and postbiotics. As mentioned above, watch for blog updates on implementation of the definitions for different stakeholder groups.

The recording of this webinar is available here under password protection for ISAPP industry members only.

Related information:

Consensus panel papers, all published in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology:

A roundup of the ISAPP consensus definitions: probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods

 

 

 

 

A roundup of the ISAPP consensus definitions: probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods

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

ISAPP has long recognized the importance of precise definitions of the ‘biotic’ family of terms. As a scientific organization working to advance global knowledge about probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods, we believe carrying out rigorous scientific studies—and comparing one result to another—is more difficult if we do not start with a clear definition of what we are studying.

Over the past 8 years, ISAPP has endeavored to bring clarity to these definitions for scientists and other stakeholders. ISAPP board members have met with other top experts representing multiple perspectives and specialties in the field to develop precise, useful and appropriate definitions of the terms probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods. The definitions of these first four terms have all entailed the requirement that the substance be shown to confer a health benefit in the target host. Fermented foods have multitudes of sensorial, nutritional and technological benefits, which drive their utility. A health benefit is not required.

The problem with health benefits

The definitions provide significant advantages for the scientific community in terms of clarity but complexity arises when the same definitions are accepted by regulatory agencies. This requirement for a health benefit as part of the probiotic definition has been rigorously implemented in the European Union. Currently, with the exception of a few member states, the term probiotic is prohibited. The logic is that since a health benefit is inherent to the term probiotic and since there are no approved health claims for probiotics in the EU*, the term ‘probiotic’ is seen to be acting as a proxy for a health claim. This has frustrated probiotic product companies who believe they have met the scientific criteria for probiotics, yet cannot identify their product as a probiotic in the marketplace because they have not received endorsement of their claims by the EU. This is not an issue resulting from an unclear definition, since probiotics surely should provide a health benefit, but rather from a lack of agreement as to what level of evidence is sufficient to substantiate a health benefit.

ISAPP remains committed to the importance of requiring a health benefit for the ‘biotic’ family of terms (outlined in the table below). It’s clear that all of these definitions are meaningless unless the requirement that they confer a health benefit is considered as essential by all stakeholders. One could reasonably discuss whether the required levels of evidence for foods and supplements are too high in some regulatory jurisdictions, but the value of these substances collapses in the absence of a health benefit.

Summary of ISAPP consensus definitions

With the publication of the most recent ISAPP consensus paper, this one on postbiotics, I offer a summary below of the five consensus definitions published by ISAPP. Each definition is part of a comprehensive paper resulting from focused discussions among experts in the field and published in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology (NRGH). These papers are among the top most viewed of all time on the NRGH website and are increasingly cited by scientists and regulators.

Table. Summary of ISAPP Consensus Definitions of the ‘Biotics’ Family of Substances. Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics and postbiotics have in common the requirement for a health benefit. They may apply to any target host, any regulatory category and must be safe for their intended use. Fermented foods fall only under the foods category and no health benefit is required.

Definition Key features of the definition Reference
Probiotics Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host Grammatical correction of the 2001 FAO/WHO definition.

No mechanism is stipulated by the definition.

 

Hill et al. 2014
Prebiotics A substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit Prebiotics are distinct from fiber. Beneficial impact on resident microbiota and demonstration of health benefit required in same study. Gibson et al. 2017
Synbiotics A mixture comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms that confers a health benefit on the host Two types of synbiotics defined: complementary and synergistic. Complementary synbiotics comprise probiotic(s) plus prebiotic(s), meeting requirements for criteria for each. Synergistic synbiotics comprise substrate(s) selectively utilized by co-administered live microbe(s), but independently, the components do not have to meet criteria for prebiotic or probiotic. Swanson et al. 2020
Postbiotics Preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host Postbiotics are prepared from live microbes that undergo inactivation and the cells or cellular structures must be retained. Filtrates or isolated components from the growth of live microbes are not postbiotics. A probiotic that is killed is not automatically a postbiotic; the preparation must be shown to confer a health benefit, as well as meet all other criteria for a postbiotic. Salminen et al. 2021
Fermented Foods Foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components Fermented foods are not the same as probiotics. They are not required to have live microbes characterized to the strain level nor have evidence of a health benefit. Types of fermented foods are many and are specific to geographic regions. Compared to the raw foods they are made from, they may have improved taste, digestibility, safety, and nutritional value. Marco et al. 2021

 

 

*Actually, there is one approved health claim in the EU for a probiotic: Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to live yoghurt cultures and improved lactose digestion (ID 1143, 2976) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006

 

Further reading: Defining emerging ‘biotics’

Behind the publication: Understanding ISAPP’s new scientific consensus definition of postbiotics

A key characteristic of a probiotic is that it remains alive at the time of consumption. Yet scientists have known for decades that some non-living microorganisms can also have benefits for health: various studies (reviewed in Ouwehand & Salminen, 1998) have compared the health effects of viable and non-viable bacteria, and some recent investigations have tested the health benefits of pasteurized bacteria (Depommier et al., 2019).

Since non-viable microorganisms are often more stable and convenient to include in consumer products, interest in these ‘postbiotic’ ingredients has increased over the past several years. But before now, the scientific community had not yet united around a definition, nor had it precisely delineated what falls into this category.

An international group of scientists from the disciplines of probiotics and postbiotics, food technology, adult and pediatric gastroenterology, pediatrics, metabolomics, regulatory affairs, microbiology, functional genomics, cellular physiology and immunology met in 2019 to discuss the concept of postbiotics. This meeting led to a recently published consensus paper, including this definition: “a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host”.

Thus, a postbiotic must include some non-living microbial biomass, whether it be whole microbial cells or cell components.

Below is a Q&A with four of the paper’s seven ISAPP-linked authors, who highlight important points about the definition and explain how it will lay the groundwork for better scientific understanding of non-viable microbes and health in the years ahead.

Why was the concept of postbiotics needed?

Prof. Seppo Salminen, University of Turku, Finland:

We have known for a long time that inactivated microorganisms, not just live ones, may have health effects but the field had not coalesced around a term to use to describe such products or the key criteria applicable to them. So we felt we needed to assemble key experts in the field and provide clear definitions and criteria.

Further, novel microbes (that is, new species hitherto not used in foods) in foods and feeds are being introduced as live or dead preparations. The paper highlights regulatory challenges and for safety and health effect assessment for dead preparations of microbes.

Can bacterial metabolites be postbiotics?

Prof. Gabriel Vinderola, National University of Litoral, Argentina:

Postbiotics can include metabolites – for example, fermented products with metabolites and microbial cells or their components, but pure metabolites are not postbiotics.

Can you expand on what is not included in the category of postbiotics?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, ISAPP Executive Science Officer, USA:

The term ‘postbiotic’ today is sometimes applied to components derived from microbial growth that are purified, so no cell or cell products remain. The panel made the decision that such purified, microbe-derived substances (e.g. butyrate) should be called by their chemical names and that there was no need for a single encompassing term for them. Some people may be surprised by this. But microbe-derived substances include a whole host of purified pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals, and these are not appropriately within the scope of ‘postbiotics’.

For something to be a postbiotic, what kinds of microorganisms can it originate from?

Prof. Gabriel Vinderola, National University of Litoral, Argentina:

A postbiotic must derive from a living microorganism on which a technological process is applied for life termination (heat, high pressure, oxygen exposure for strict anaerobes, etc). Viruses, including bacteriophages, are not considered living microorganisms, so postbiotics cannot be derived from them.

Safety and benefits must be demonstrated for its non-viable form. A postbiotic does not have to be derived from a probiotic (see here for a list of criteria required for a probiotic). So the microbe used to derive a postbiotic does not need to demonstrate a health benefit while alive. Further, a probiotic product that loses cell viability during storage does not automatically qualify as a postbiotic; studies on the health benefit of the inactivated probiotic are still required.

Vaccines or substantially purified components and products (for example, proteins, peptides, exopolysaccharides, SCFAs, filtrates without cell components and chemically synthesized compounds) would not qualify as postbiotics in their own right, although some might be present in postbiotic preparations.

What was the most challenging part of creating this definition?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, ISAPP Executive Science Officer, USA:

The panel didn’t want to use the term ‘inactive’ to describe a postbiotic, because clearly even though they are dead, they retain biological activity. There was a lot of discussion about the word ‘inanimate’, as it’s not so easy to translate. But the panel eventually decided it was the best option.

 Does this definition encompass all postbiotic products, no matter whether they are taken as dietary supplements or drugs?

Prof. Hania Szajewska, Medical University of Warsaw, Poland:

Indeed. However, as of today, postbiotics are found primarily in foods and dietary supplements.

Where can you currently find postbiotics in consumer products, and what are their health effects?

Prof. Hania Szajewska, Medical University of Warsaw, Poland:

One example is specific fermented infant formulas with postbiotics which have been commercially available in some countries such as Japan and in Europe, South America, and the Middle East for years. The postbiotics in fermented formulas are generally derived from fermentation of a milk matrix by Bifidobacterium, Streptococcus, and/or Lactobacillus strains.

Potential clinical effects of postbiotics include prevention of common infectious diseases such as upper respiratory tract infections and acute gastroenteritis. Moreover, fermented formulas have the potential to improve some digestive symptoms or discomfort (e.g. colic in infants). In addition, there is some rationale for immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory effects which may potentially translate into other clinical benefits, such as improving allergy symptoms. Still, while these effects are likely, more well-designed, carefully conducted trials are needed.

What do we know about postbiotic safety?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, ISAPP Executive Science Officer, USA:

Living microbes have the potential, especially in people with compromised health, to cause an infection. But because the microbes in postbiotics are not alive, they cannot cause infections. This risk factor, then, is removed from these preparations. Of course, the safety of postbiotics for their intended use must be demonstrated, but infectivity should not be a concern.

What are the take-home points about the postbiotics definition?

Prof. Seppo Salminen, University of Turku, Finland:

Postbiotics, which encompass inanimate microbes with or without metabolites, can be characterized, are likely to be more stable than live counterparts and are less likely to be a safety concern, since dead bacteria and yeast are not infective.

Read the postbiotic definition paper here.

See the press release about this paper here.

View an infographic on the postbiotic definition here.

Children and dogs in a household share gut microbes – and these microbes are modified by a canine probiotic

From longtime family pets to ‘pandemic puppies’, dog ownership is seemingly more popular than ever. In households with children, scientists have found that a pet dog is one of the environmental factors that influences the gut microbiota in early life – but can the microbes that children and dogs share be modified?

A new study from ISAPP president Prof. Seppo Salminen (University of Turku, Finland) and colleagues recently explored the impact of a household dog on children’s gut microbiota, before and after the dogs were given a canine probiotic. Not only did the gut microbiota of dogs and children in the same household share features in common, but also the gut microbes of both shifted after dogs received a probiotic.

The study, which was part of a larger investigation, looked at families with at least one member who had allergic disease. Thirty-one of the families in the current study had dogs, and 18 families (the control group) did not. From each household, the fecal microbiota of one child (aged 5 or under) was tested. The fecal microbiota of the dogs was tested, and further, they received either a probiotic containing 3 canine-derived strains, or placebo.

The data supported previous observations that dogs and children share gut microbes: the children living with dogs had a distinct fecal microbiota composition. The most striking microbiota differences were a higher abundance of Bacteroides and short-chain fatty acid producing bacteria.

Moreover, when the household dogs were given a probiotic, both the dogs and the children living with them showed a gut microbiota shift, with a reduction in Bacteroides. (The exact probiotic strains were not tracked in the feces of either the dogs or the children.)

Were the changes beneficial? It’s not certain, since health outcomes in the children were not part of the study. But these findings provide more evidence for the effect of home environments and pets on the gut microbiota of children, and highlight the modifiability of both the dog’s and children’s gut microbiota. The ability to modify a child’s gut microbiota is of particular interest in the early years, when gut microbiota / immune interactions have the potential to shape health through the lifespan.

The study authors conclude, “Our promising data invite the idea that the compositional development of the gut microbiota in children is potentially modifiable by indirect changes in household pets and justify the further search of novel modes of intervention during critical period when the scene is set for the consolidation of the child later health.”

What’s a Clinician to do When the Probiotic Recommendations from Medical Organizations Do Not Agree?

By Prof. Hania Szajewska, MD, Department of Paediatrics, The Medical University of Warsaw, Poland

The scientific literature on probiotics is growing rapidly, with newly published studies continually adding to the sum of information about the probiotic strains that confer health benefits in specific populations.

In research, we make hypotheses. Eventually, they are resolved by collecting data or they are replaced by more refined, or entirely new, hypotheses. This process usually unfolds over an extended period of time. Along the way, medical and scientific organizations may decide to take ‘snapshots’ of the evidence to-date and develop guidelines based on available published studies. Unfortunately, disagreements can occur about the meaning of the data, sometimes leading to differences in the guidelines developed by various organizations.

But clinicians cannot always wait for the data to provide a crystal-clear picture. They want answers to guide their clinical practice. Hence the question: Should probiotics be used if guidelines do not agree on the use of probiotics for a certain indication, or on the strains to be used?

Take, for example, the current situation relevant to pediatric practice. Here I discuss two recommendation documents: one developed by the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN), and another developed by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA).

Acute diarrhea

In 2020, the ESPGHAN Working Group (WG) on Probiotics identified 16 systematic reviews and meta-analyses published since 2010, which included more than 150 RCTs. The WG made weak (also known as conditional) recommendations for (in descending order in terms of the number of trials evaluating any given strain):

  • S boulardii (low to very low certainty of evidence);
  • L rhamnosus GG (very low certainty of evidence); L reuteri DSM 17938 (low to very low certainty of evidence);
  • L rhamnosus 19070-2 & L reuteri DSM 12246 (very low certainty of evidence).

The WG made a strong recommendation against L helveticus R0052 & L rhamnosus R0011 (moderate certainty of evidence) and a weak (conditional) recommendation against Bacillus clausii strains O/C, SIN, N/R, and T (very low certainty of evidence)1.

In contrast, also in 2020, the AGA, based on the evaluation of 89 trials, made a conditional recommendation against the use of probiotics in children from North America with acute infectious gastroenteritis (moderate quality of evidence)2. The rationale for the negative AGA recommendation was that the majority of the studies were performed outside North America. Moreover, two large, high-quality null trials, performed in Canada and US, questioned the efficacy of the probiotics evaluated in these studies, for the management of children with acute gastroenteritis 3,4.

Prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis

Another example of discordant guidelines relates to necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in preterm infants. NEC is one of the most severe and life-threatening gastrointestinal diseases to occur in preterm infants, particularly those with a birth weight <1,000 g. The factors involved in the pathogenesis of NEC include formula feeding rather than breastfeeding, intestinal hypoxia–ischemia, and colonization of the gut with pathogenic microbiota5.

In 2020, both ESPGHAN6 and AGA2 published their recommendations on the use of probiotics for preventing NEC. While both were based on pair-wise systematic reviews and network meta-analyses7, their conclusions differed. The only probiotic strain that was recommended by both societies was L rhamnosus GG ATCC 53103. With regard to L reuteri DSM 17938, the ESPGHAN did not formulate a recommendation for or against it, while the AGA conditionally recommends it.

Why do guidelines differ?

Many factors contribute to the discrepancy in guidelines developed by various organizations. In the case of probiotics, they may be due to these differences:

  • Study methods. Although dozens of studies involving thousands of patients have been conducted in many indications, studies are subject to bias resulting from incorrect randomization, non-confidentiality, non-masking, or lack of intention-to-treat analysis.
  • Targeted population. The effectiveness of probiotics in different populations may vary, for example, due to differences diet or in microbiota at the start of treatment.
  • Probiotics are a heterogeneous intervention. Even if the rules for assessing individual strains, and not probiotics as a group, are followed, the effectiveness of probiotics is influenced by factors such as product quality, storage conditions, dose, timing of administration, and the duration of the intervention.
  • Outcome measures (endpoints). Studies use different outcomes to measure efficacy, and even if the same outcomes are used, their definition may differ (e.g. diarrhea duration may be defined as time to the last diarrheal stool or time to the first normal stool). Such heterogeneity in the reported outcomes, combined with the lack of standardized definitions, pose a challenge in meta-analyses and should be considered when interpreting the results.

What should clinicians do when the guidelines are not consistent?

Back to the question asked earlier: Should probiotics be routinely used if guidelines from the scientific or medical organizations do not agree on the use of probiotics?

One approach may not fit all. However, in the case of acute infectious diarrhea in children, both the AGA and ESPGHAN formulated a conditional recommendation: in the first case, it is negative; in the second, positive. It is important to note that the interpretation of a conditional recommendation for and a conditional recommendation against is similar. For clinicians, both mean that different choices will be appropriate for different people. Clinicians should help each patient make decisions consistent with the patient’s preferences. For patients, it means that the majority of individuals in this situation would want the suggested course of action, but many would not8.

Taken together, the recommendations communicate that probiotics may be beneficial, although not essential, in the treatment of acute diarrhea in young children.  The use of certain probiotics with documented efficacy may be considered in the management of acute diarrhea in young children.

With regard to the prevention of NEC, the AGA and ESPGHAN guidelines agree that certain probiotics reduce the risk of NEC in preterm infants. However, based on their analyses and the included / excluded studies they differ in the recommended strains; additionally, not all of the strain combinations are available everywhere. Therefore, it seems reasonable to choose a probiotic that is included in the recommendations of both societies (if available). One example is L. rhamnosus GG.

In general, organizations should be commended for taking on the daunting task of evaluating the probiotic evidence – both the quality of the studies and the positive or negative results – in order to generate recommendations. Until further well-conducted studies make the answer clearer, clinicians must live with some ambiguity and use the recommendations in the best way possible to inform their daily decisions with individual patients.

REFERENCES

  1. Szajewska H, Guarino A, Hojsak I, et al. Use of Probiotics for the Management of Acute Gastroenteritis in Children. An Update. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2020.
  2. Su GL, Ko CW, Bercik P, et al. AGA Clinical Practice Guidelines on the Role of Probiotics in the Management of Gastrointestinal Disorders. Gastroenterology. 2020.
  3. Schnadower D, Tarr PI, Casper TC, et al. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG versus Placebo for Acute Gastroenteritis in Children. The New England journal of medicine. 2018;379(21):2002-2014.
  4. Freedman SB, Williamson-Urquhart S, Farion KJ, et al. Multicenter Trial of a Combination Probiotic for Children with Gastroenteritis. The New England journal of medicine. 2018;379(21):2015-2026.
  5. Neu J, Walker WA. Necrotizing enterocolitis. The New England journal of medicine. 2011;364(3):255-264.
  6. van den Akker CHP, van Goudoever JB, Shamir R, et al. Probiotics and Preterm Infants: A Position Paper by the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition and the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition Working Group for Probiotics and Prebiotics. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition. 2020;70(5):664-680.
  7. van den Akker CHP, van Goudoever JB, Szajewska H, et al. Probiotics for Preterm Infants: A Strain-Specific Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition. 2018;67(1):103-122.
  8. Andrews J, Guyatt G, Oxman AD, et al. GRADE guidelines: 14. Going from evidence to recommendations: the significance and presentation of recommendations. J Clin Epidemiol. 2013;66(7):719-725.

ISAPP publishes continuing education course for dietitians

For dietitians, it’s often difficult to find practical, up-to-date resources with a scientific perspective on probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics and fermented foods. ISAPP is pleased to announce a new resource to fill this need – a Special Continuing Education Supplement in Today’s Dietitian titled, “Evidence-based use of probiotics, prebiotics and fermented foods for digestive health”. This free continuing education course also includes infographic summaries, links to supplementary information, and even some favourite recipes. US dietitians can earn 2.0 CPEUs for completing this self-study activity.

The resource was written by dietitian and assistant professor Dr. Hannah D. Holscher, along with two ISAPP board members, Prof. Robert Hutkins, a fermented foods and prebiotics expert, and Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, a probiotic expert.

“We hope this course will give dietitians an overview of the evidence that exists for probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics and fermented foods, and help explain some of the practical nuances around incorporating them into their practice,” says Sanders. “In addition, we believe that this course will be a scientifically accurate overview that can counter prevalent misinformation. It can serve as a useful resource for diverse array of professionals active in this field.”

Find the supplement here.

What’s the evidence on ‘biotics’ for health? A summary from five ISAPP board members

Evidence on the health benefits of gut-targeted ‘biotics’ – probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, and postbiotics – has greatly increased over the past two decades, but it can be difficult to sort through the thousands of studies that exist today to learn which of these ingredients are appropriate in which situations. At a recent World of Microbiome virtual conference, ISAPP board members participated in a panel that provided an overview of what we currently know about the health benefits of ‘biotics’ and how they are best used.

Here’s a summary of what the board members had to say:

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders: Probiotics and fermented foods

  • Probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
  • Unfortunately, published assessments of probiotic products available on the market show that these products often fall short of required evidence. For example, their labels may not adequately describe the contents (including genus / species / strain in the product); they may not guarantee the efficacious dose through the end of the shelf life.
  • Contrary to common belief, probiotics do not need to colonize in the target site (e.g. the gut), impact gut microbiota composition, be derived from humans, or be resistant to stomach acid and other gut secretions such as bile.
  • Fermented foods are those made “through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components”. The recent increased interest in fermented foods may come from people’s increased awareness of the role of gut microbes in overall health, but it is important to note that we have little direct evidence that the transient effects of fermented food microbes on the gut microbiota actually lead to health benefits. With that said, observational studies suggest that consuming some traditional fermented foods is associated with improved health outcomes.

Prof. Dan Merenstein, MD: Probiotics – How do I know what to prescribe for adult health?

  • A (limited) survey showed that most dietary supplement probiotic products cannot be linked to evidence because they do not provide enough information to determine what evidence exists to support their use – especially strains in the product. However, there are some probiotic products that have robust evidence.
  • Should every adult take a probiotic? The best evidence supports probiotics for improved lactose digestion and for prevention of difficile infection. Probiotics have also been shown to prevent common illnesses; reduce the duration of gut symptoms; and perhaps even reduce antibiotic consumption.
  • Studies will reveal more about the microbiome and about how probiotics work, for whom and for what indications. As with diet, the answer will most likely not be same for each person.

Prof. Glenn Gibson: Prebiotics and Synbiotics

  • A prebiotic is “a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit”. Researchers can test these substances’ activity in various ways: batch cultures, micro batch cultures, metabolite analysis, molecular microbiology methods, CF gut models, with in vivo (e.g. human) studies being required. Prebiotics appear to have particular utility in elderly populations, and may be helpful in repressing infections, inflammation and allergies. They have also been researched in clinical states such as IBS, IBD, autism and obesity related issues (Gibson et al., 2017).
  • A synbiotic is “a mixture, comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms, that confers a health benefit on the host.” While more studies are needed to say precisely which are useful in which situations, synbiotics have shown promise for several aspects of health in adults (Swanson et al. 2020): surgical infections and complications, metabolic disorders (including T2DM and glycaemia), irritable bowel syndrome, Helicobacter pylori infection and atopic dermatitis.

Prof. Hania Szajewska, MD: Biotics for pediatric use

  • Beneficial effects of ‘biotics’ are possible in pediatrics, but each ‘biotic’ needs to be evaluated separately. High-quality research is essential.
  • It is important that we view the use of ‘biotics’ in the context of other things in a child’s life and other interventions.
  • Breast milk is the best option for feeding infants
  • If breastfeeding is not an option, infant formulae supplemented with probiotics and/or prebiotics and/or postbiotics are available on the market.
  • Pro-/pre-/synbiotic supplemented formulae evaluated so far seem safe with some favorable clinical effects possible, but the evidence is not robust enough overall to be able to recommend routine use of these formulae.
  • Evidence is convincing on probiotics for prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants.
  • Medical societies differ in their recommendations for probiotics to treat acute gastroenteritis in children – they appear beneficial but not essential.
  • Synbiotics are less studied, but early evidence indicates they may be useful for preventing sepsis in infants and preventing / treating allergy and atopic dermatitis in children.

Prof. Gabriel Vinderola: Postbiotics

  • The concept of non-viable microbes exerting a health benefit has been around for a while, but different terms were used for these ingredients. Creating a scientific consensus definition will improve communication with health professionals, industry, regulators, and the general public. It will allow clear criteria for what qualifies as a postbiotic, and allow better tracking of scientific papers for future systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
  • The ISAPP consensus definition (in press) of a postbiotic is: “A preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host”.
  • Postbiotics are stable, so no cold-chain is needed to deliver them to the consumer. Safety is of less concern because the microbes are not alive and thus cannot cause bacteraemia.
  • Research in the coming years will reveal more about postbiotics and the ways in which they can promote human health.

See here for the entire presentation on Biotics for Health.

Probiotics and fermented foods, by Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders (@1:15)

Postbiotics, by Prof. Gabriel Vinderola (@18:22)

Prebiotics and synbiotics, by Prof. Glenn Gibson (@33:24)

‘Biotics’ for pediatric use, by Prof. Hania Szajewska (@47:55 )

Probiotics: How do I know what to prescribe for adult health? by Prof. Dan Merenstein (@1:04:51)

Q&A (@1:20:00)

 

Probiotics in fridge

Designing Probiotic Clinical Trials: What Placebo Should I Use?

By Daniel J. Merenstein, MD, Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Director of Research Programs, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington DC

Specifying a placebo is one of the most important decisions for a clinical trialist. The first trial I led was a study giving Benadryl to kids to see if it helped them sleep. We spent hours working with our pharmacist on the placebo to make sure it had the same sweet cherry taste of the active drug, Benadryl. We didn’t want parents to be able to determine whether they were randomized to Benadryl or the placebo by comparing the study product to what they had at home. Do study subjects really do this? Yes. Early in my career I was helping an orthopedist who was putting pain pumps directly into a patient’s ankle post-surgery in order to see if it would decrease oral narcotic usage. One of our first patients pulled his pump out, tasted the medicine and called us late at night complaining he was in the saline (placebo) group.

When undertaking a study on probiotics, and specifically probiotic yogurts, we can debate for weeks about the best placebo. Our intervention is yogurt fortified with an additional probiotic. Therefore, our intervention yogurt contains both the starter lactic acid bacteria and the probiotic. So assuming we want both groups to get nutritionally equivalent yogurt that can be blinded our placebo options could be as follows. Note that in recent years, we have become more cognizant that dead microbes may not be biologically inactive.

Placebo Microbiological content of Placebo Research question addressed
Yogurt Live starter cultures, no probiotic What is the contribution of probiotics to any health benefit?
Acidified yogurt No live or dead microbes What is the contribution of live probiotic + live starter cultures to any health benefit?
Heat treated yogurt No live microbes, dead starter microbes Beyond any contribution of dead starter cultures, what is the contribution of live probiotic + live starter cultures to the health benefit?
Heat treated probiotic yogurt No live microbes, dead starter + dead probiotic microbes Beyond any contribution of dead probiotics + dead starter cultures, what is the contribution of live probiotic + live starter cultures to the health benefit?
Probiotic yogurt using a different probiotic Live starter cultures, live probiotic different from the probiotic in the intervention What is the contribution of the intervention probiotic to any health benefit compared to the control probiotic?

 

We chose regular yogurt (the first option above) and now about eight papers later, I would say that about 50% of reviewers question our choice.

There are many reasons the placebo needs to be well considered, including the specific research question under consideration. But an important one is clinical equipoise, “a state of genuine uncertainty on the part of the clinical investigator regarding the comparative therapeutic merits of each arm in a trial”, as defined Freedman 1987. Thus, for example in a study of a new hypertension drug, one cannot use a placebo that has no chance of lowering a patient’s blood pressure as a comparator as that is ethically indefensible. Instead, a well proven hypertension drug will be studied versus the new experimental drug.

For most of my career the goal in my studies was to pick a placebo that was as inactive as possible that still smelled, looked and tasted like my active intervention. However, the times are changing. When I started working there were fewer than 200 randomized controlled clinical probiotic trials retrievable from PubMed; today the number is over 2,300. Well that means we have gone beyond merely recognizing the value of probiotics in different indications, to detailed comparisons of different probiotic and non-probiotic interventions, so one has to consider how inactive their placebo is for probiotic intervention trials.

In 2020 the American Gastrointestinal Association came out with recommendations and guidelines after they conducted a thorough review of probiotic evidence. (See ISAPP blog ISAPP take-home points from American Gastroenterological Association guidelines on probiotic use for gastrointestinal disorders.) For three indications, they recommended using select probiotics over no or other probiotics, in populations of preterm low birthweight infants, patients receiving antibiotics, and patients with pouchitis. So what does this mean for trials evaluating one of these indications? It means that the placebo should be an active control, a probiotic versus probiotic trial.

Today if I’m asked what placebo should be used, my first question is what indication are you studying? If you are studying infant colic or preterm low birthweight infants, I think you need an active control, such as another probiotic. (Colleagues and I suggested this for probiotic studies on necrotizing enterocolitis in 2013.) If you are studying anxiety, then an inert placebo makes the most sense since insufficient evidence exists for any probiotic for this endpoint as yet. In the case of antibiotic associated diarrhea, it will be a much longer discussion as the data are not clear, but it would be reasonable for an IRB to argue that your placebo should be another probiotic. It is not ethical to deny a placebo group an effective intervention if one is available.

So in the last 15 years of my career the answer to what placebo should I use has greatly changed. As probiotic research has advanced, so has the evidence base for usage. As we proceed with research we now need to consider conducting our clinical trials differently. This is just another example of how probiotic evidence has matured over a relatively short period of time.

Five things scientists should know about the future of probiotics and prebiotics

By Marla Cunningham​, Metagenics Global R&D Innovation Manager and 2021 ISAPP Industry Advisory Committee representative

As anyone connected with probiotics and prebiotics knows – there’s a lot happening in this space.

After a well-attended discussion group at the 2019 ISAPP Annual Meeting in Antwerp, a collaboration of 16 industry and academic scientists came together to produce a broad overview of current and emerging trends that were covered in this discussion. Just released online by Trends in Microbiology, the open access paper identifies some top trends across multiple spheres of influence on the future of probiotics and prebiotics.

  1. Discovery: Prebiotics and probiotics are emerging from unexpected sources – naturally occurring as well as synthesised or engineered. Food, human and animal microbiome-derived probiotics feature heavily in probiotic development through top-down microbiome data-driven approaches as well as physiological target-driven screening approaches. Prebiotic sources have expanded beyond traditional plant sources to include food waste streams, animal gut-derived glycans and mammalian milk as well as increasingly sophisticated synthesis techniques, involving sonication, high pressure, acid, enzyme and oxidation treatments. A growing understanding of the implications of carbohydrate structure on microbial metabolism is driving the emergence of designer prebiotics, as specific substrates for microbes of interest or the production of target metabolites, such as polyphenol-derived bioactives.
  2. Evaluation: Calls for integrated systems biology -omic approaches to the evaluation of probiotic and prebiotics effects continue to increase, utilising whole genome and metabolite approaches, with a focus on better understanding of mode of action as well as differential host and microbial responses that serve to improve host health.
  3. Product development: Quality assurance techniques continue to undergo evolution as the challenges of divergent product formats and increasingly complex formulations necessitate innovation in the field. There is a focus on techniques beyond cell culture enumeration for probiotic product verification as well as on the identification of functional markers of probiotic and prebiotic activity, which can be applied in complex food matrices.
  4. Regulation: Recent regulatory challenges with claim approval are understood to have driven corresponding evolution in clinical science and an increased focus on mechanistic elucidation. However, the converse is also occurring, with the development of novel probiotic species, therapeutics for disease treatment and increasingly microbiome-driven modes of action having implications for regulatory frameworks. This ‘give and take’ between science and regulatory requirements will likely accelerate into the future as the field continues to evolve.
  5. Implementation: Interest continues to grow in precision and personalised approaches to nutrition and healthcare, especially in the field of microbiome-related interventions where there is significant appreciation of host-to-host variability. The identification of putative microbial signatures of health and disease continues to fuel the development of health-associated microbes as candidate probiotics and as targets for novel prebiotic substrates. Further, a focus beyond microbial composition and into microbial function is driving interest in interventions which can correct metabolomic profiles, such as probiotics with specific enzyme activity to boost synthesis or catabolism of key microbial metabolites in vivo, including purine and monoamine compounds.

These and other trends create a rich and evolving landscape for scientists within the field and provide the promise of a bright future for prebiotics and probiotics.

Read the full paper here

Reference:

Cunningham, M., Azcarate-Peril, M. A., Barnard, A., Benoit, V., Grimaldi, R., Guyonnet, D., Holscher, H. D., Hunter, K., Manurung, S., Obis, D., Petrova, M. I., Steinert, R. E., Swanson, K. S., van Sinderen, D., Vulevic, J., & Gibson, G. R. (2021). Shaping the Future of Probiotics and Prebiotics. Trends in microbiology, S0966-842X(21)00005-6. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tim.2021.01.003

 

 

 

Video Presentation: Behind the scenes of the consensus panel discussion on the definition of fermented foods

Numerous misunderstandings and questions exist around the concept of fermented foods. For example:

  • If a food does not contain live microorganisms, can it still be a fermented food?
  • Should the live microbes in fermented foods be called probiotics?
  • Do fermentation microbes colonize the human gut?

The first step in answering these questions is for scientists to come to agreement on what constitutes a fermented food. A new global definition of fermented foods was recently published by 13 interdisciplinary scientists from various fields—microbiology, food science and technology, immunology, and family medicine. In their paper in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, fermented foods are defined as: “foods and beverages made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components”.

The panel discussion and the definition of fermented foods are covered in this video presentation by the paper’s first author Prof. Maria Marco, from the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis. This presentation was originally given at the virtual ISAPP 2020 annual meeting.

The new definition is intended to provide a clearer conceptual understanding of fermented foods for the public and industry, with the authors expecting that in the years ahead, scientists will undertake more hypothesis-driven research to determine the extent that various fermented foods improve human health and precisely how this occurs. More studies that address fermented foods in promoting health will be useful for establishing the importance of fermented foods in dietary guidelines.

The panel acknowledged that regulations on fermented foods from country to country are mainly concerned with food safety — and that, when properly made, fermented foods and their associated microorganisms have a long history of safe use.

 

ISAPP ha estado trabajando en colaboración con la Sociedad de Enterocolitis Necrotizante

La Asociación Científica Internacional para Probióticos y Prebióticos (ISAPP, por sus siglas en inglés), ha estado trabajando en colaboración con la Sociedad de Enterocolitis Necrotizante (NEC Society) en el desarrollo de una infografía sobre el rol de los probióticos en la prevención de la Enterocolitis Necrotizante (ECN).

La ECN es una enfermedad intestinal que puede poner en peligro la vida principalmente en bebés prematuros. Esta enfermedad produce un proceso inflamatorio que puede provocar daños en el tejido intestinal e incluso la muerte.

La leche materna de la madre del bebé es la forma más importante de ayudar a disminuir el riesgo de ECN. La leche pasteurizada de madres donantes es la segunda mejor opción. Adicionalmente, suministrar probióticos a bebés prematuros, junto con la leche materna, puede reducir el riesgo de ECN.

Los probióticos son microorganismos vivos que, cuando se administran en cantidades adecuadas, confieren un beneficio para la salud del huésped.

Los padres con hijos con riesgo de desarrollar ECN pueden consultar a los responsables de la Unidad de Cuidados Intensivos, sobre la posibilidad de utilizar probióticos para contribuir a prevenir el desarrollo de ECN.

ISAPP ha preparado una infografía en español con mayor información sobre este tema, la cual se puede encontrar aquí.

Can fermented or probiotic foods with added sugars be part of a healthy diet?

By Dr. Chris Cifelli, Vice President of Nutrition Research, National Dairy Council, Rosemont IL, USA

What about added sugar in fermented or probiotic foods? I am almost always asked this question whenever I give a nutrition presentation, no matter the audience. It’s not a surprising question as people care about what they eat and, often, are looking for ways to reduce their intake of sugar. Yet, if someone wants to add fermented or probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir or kombucha to their diet, they often find the products available to them contain sugar as an added ingredient.

Should these products be part of you and your family’s healthy eating plan even if they have added sugar? The simple answer – yes, they likely can still fit into a healthy eating plan.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ‘added sugars’ are defined as sugars that are either added during the processing of foods or are packaged separately as sugars (e.g. the bag of sugar you buy to make your treats). Added sugars in the diet have received attention because of their link to obesity and chronic disease risk. The World Health Organization, American Heart Association, Dietary Guidelines for America, and American Diabetes Association all recommend reducing added sugar intake to improve overall health. While data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has shown that consumption of added sugar decreased from the 2007-2010 to the 2013-2017 surveys, the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report noted that the mean usual consumption of added sugars was still 13% of daily energy in 2015-16, which exceeds recommendations of 10%.

Including fermented foods in one’s diet may be important for overall health. The recent ISAPP consensus paper on fermented foods indicated that fermented foods, especially the live microbes contained in them, could benefit health in numerous ways, such as by beneficially modulating the gut microbiota or the immune system. Similarly, foods with added probiotics may confer health benefits ranging from impacting digestive health to metabolic parameters, depending on the probiotic contained in the product. Our understanding of the gut microbiota continues to evolve, but one thing is for certain: it is important for health. This provides a compelling reason to find ways to include these foods in healthy eating patterns.

So, back to the question at hand. Should you reduce or eliminate fermented foods and foods with probiotics from your diet if they have added sugars? Just like a “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” a little added sugar to improve the palatability of nutrient-dense foods is okay. Indeed, government and health organizations all agree that people can eat some sugar within the daily recommendations (which is 10% of total daily calories), especially in foods like yogurt or whole-grain cereals, or other healthy foods. And, there is no scientific evidence to show that the sugar in these products reduces the health benefits associated with eating foods like yogurt or probiotics. Human studies assessing health benefits of probiotic foods typically use products with added sugar, yet health effects are still observed.

The next time you are out shopping you can choose your favorite fermented or probiotic-containing food guilt free, as long as you’re watching your overall daily intake of sugar. But, if are you are still concerned, then choose plain varieties to control your own level of sweetness or you could opt for a probiotic supplement to avoid the sugar. Whether you go with the sweetened or unsweetened version of your favorite fermented food, you’ll not only get the benefit of the live microbes in these products but also the nutritional benefit that comes with foods like yogurt.

 

Creating a scientific definition of ‘fermented foods’

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

A panel of scientific experts was recently convened by ISAPP to discuss the state of knowledge on fermented foods. While there was much agreement on the underlying microbiological processes and health-related properties of those foods and beverages, our conversation on definitions led to sustained debate. So what exactly is a fermented food?

The word “ferment” originates from fervere, which in Latin means to boil. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the verb ferment is defined as “to undergo fermentation or to be in a state of agitation or intense activity”. Fermentation is defined as both a chemical change with effervescence and as an enzymatically controlled anaerobic breakdown of energy-rich compounds (such as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid). In biochemistry, fermentation is understood as an ATP-generating process in which organic compounds act as both electron donors and acceptors. In industry, fermentation means the intentional use of bacteria and eukaryotic cells to make useful products such as drugs or antibiotics. As you can see, there are clearly many meanings implied in “ferment” and “fermentation”. We add onto this by defining how those words apply to foods.

As our ISAPP panel began to deliberate the definition of fermented foods, it quickly became clear how difficult reaching consensus can be! Even though many panel members shared similar academic backgrounds and scientific expertise, finding agreement on the definition required several rounds of debate and some consuming of fermented foods and beverages along the way. Finally, we defined fermented foods and beverages as being “foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components” (see the published consensus paper here).

Find ISAPP’s infographic on fermented foods here.

This definition is very specific by requiring microbial growth and enzymatic processes for the making of those foods. Activity of the endogenous enzymes from the food components or enzymes added to the food is not enough for a food to be regarded as fermented. Similarly, foods made by only adding vinegar or “pickling” should not be called fermented. The definition acknowledges the essential roles of microorganisms for making fermented foods but does not require their presence or viability at the time of consumption.

On the other hand, our definition does not restrict fermented foods to only those foods and beverages made using microorganisms using metabolic pathways implicit in the strict biochemical definition. Yogurt and kimchi made using lactic acid bacteria relying on fermentative energy metabolism are included as much as koji and vinegar, foods made using fermentation processes that employ fungi and bacteria that perform aerobic respiratory metabolism.

Each word in a definition needs to be carefully calibrated. The best example of this in our definition of fermented foods is the word “desired”. Unlike a food that is spoiled as a result of microbial growth and enzymatic activity, food fermentations generate wanted attributes. Other words such as “intentional”, “desirable”, or “controlled” may also be used to describe this meaning. However, those words also have caveats that not all fermented foods are made “intentionally”, at least in the way that they were first prepared thousands of years ago. Qualities of fermented foods may be “desirable’ in some cultures but not others. While some fermentations are “controlled”, others are spontaneous, requiring little human input.

The process of discussing the definition with a group of scientific experts was enlightening because it required us to deconstruct our individual assumptions of the term in order to reach agreement on descriptions and meaning. With a definition in hand, we can use a shared language to study fermented foods and to communicate on the significance of these foods and beverages in our diets. There will also certainly be more “fermenting” of these concepts to improve our knowledge on the production and health impacting properties of fermented foods for years to come.

Find the ISAPP press release on this paper here.

Read about another ISAPP-led publication on fermented foods here.

Learn more in a webinar on the science of fermented foods here.

‘Probiotic’ on food labels in Europe: Spain adopts a pioneering initiative

By Silvia Bañares, PhD in commercial law, attorney Barcelona Bar Association, Spain; and Miguel Gueimonde, Departamento de Microbiología y Bioquímica de Productos Lácteos, IPLA-CSIC, Villaviciosa, Asturias, Spain. 

The word ‘probiotic’ has been absent from food products in most countries in Europe for years. Authorities there concluded that the word is an implied health claim, which is a reasonable position based on the probiotic definition: live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. The argument proceeds: since there are no health claims approved for probiotics by the European Union, the word is not allowed on food labels. However, the logic fails since in 2010 ESFA actually did approve a health claim for probiotics – although they didn’t use the term ‘probiotic’. This claim was for yogurt cultures improving lactose digestion. But nonetheless, restrictions on using the word ‘probiotic’ have endured.

Recently, akin to positions taken by Italy (here and here) and ostensibly the Czech Republic (as stated here), Spanish authorities have determined that the term ‘probiotic’ may be used.

In October 2020 the Spanish Health Authority (AESAN) delivered a new decision related to the use of the term “probiotic” in foodstuffs. According to it:

“until  a uniform criterion is generated on the part of the Member States of the European Union, it is considered that it could be accepted that the term probiotic/s  on the label of foodstuffs, both of national manufacturing as well as from other countries of the European Union. In all cases, these products must meet the safety requirements. However, it should be noted that the use of this term cannot be accompanied by any health claim, unless expressly authorized under the Regulation of the European Union  -Regulation EC 1924/2006[1], [2]

This new decision completely differs from the previous one (February 2020), which forbade the use of “probiotic/s” term in food products. Surprisingly, both documents are extremely similar in their reasoning.

However, the new Guidance contains some points that might be relevant for the future:

  • First, there is a clear statement related to the EU Commission Guidance of 2007 [3]; such Guidance had always been invoked as the rationale in order to forbid the term probiotic in foodstuffs, since according to it, the reference to “probiotic/s implies a health benefit”[4]. But the AESAN communication points out for first time that such Guidance is not binding since it has no legal force.
  • Secondly it recognizes the lack of harmonization at the EU level regarding the “probiotic” term:

 “From the discussions that have been held within the European Commission’s group of experts on nutritional and health claims, it is found that there are different interpretations by State Members regarding the use of the term “probiotic”, which, in turn, implies a non-harmonized situation in the European Union market”[5].

  • Third, there is a clear reference to mutual recognition principle; that is to say, any product legally marketed and sold in any EU country might be, in its turn, marketed in any other European Union Member State. For instance, any foodstuff labelled as “probiotic” in Italy might be legally sold in Spain as far as it fulfils the aforementioned criterion in its country of origin. The AESAN communication recognized such fact, pointing out that:

“In this sense, infant formulas and follow-on formulas are marketed which, as a voluntary added ingredient, contain different live microorganisms. The presence of these live microorganisms is indicated on the product label in the ingredient list. In the field of food supplements, it has been found that there are a large number of food supplements on the market, which include the term “probiotic/s”. These products come from different EU countries, where they are allowed to be marketed under this name and, therefore, they could not be prevented from being marketed in Spain, in application of the “principle of mutual recognition” established in the European Union Treaty”[6].

This statement is clearly aligned with Regulation EU 2019/515 [7] (related to mutual recognition principle) and a recent Commission Regulation (Implementing Regulation 2020/1668), which develops the previous one [8]. According to these dispositions, any competent authority suspending market access should notify the legitimate public interest grounds for such suspension. Therefore, Spain would find quite difficult to reject a foodstuff labelled as “probiotic” in another EU country when it is legally sold as such. Hence, it can be said that Spain has adopted a pioneering initiative that maybe could be followed by other EU Member States.

Italy and the Czech Republic have allowed use of the term ‘probiotic’ on foods – perhaps simply because they considered it to be the right thing to do – but they did not make the convincing legal argument made by Spanish authorities. The rationale presented by Spain could likely be easily adopted by other EU countries as well. Perhaps the Spanish initiative will motivate the EU Commission and EFSA to reach a consensus about this word.

Two decades ago, with a rapidly growing list of probiotic-containing products reaching the market worldwide, there was increasing concern by consumers about how to distinguish among the different probiotic strains available and how to know which products have evidence for different health benefits. This, together with the interest of scientist and industry for clear rules and fair competence, prompted the EU Commission to regulate the area and the Regulation EC n° 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods was developed. In its preamble this Regulation states, “to ensure a high level of protection for consumers and to facilitate their choice, products put on the market must be safe and adequately labelled” and recognises that  “general principles applicable to all claims made on foods should be established in order to ensure a high level of consumer protection, give the consumer the necessary information to make choices in full knowledge of the facts, as well as creating equal conditions of competition for the food”.  Therefore, consumer protection and facilitating informed purchase choices was in the forefront of the Regulation, in an attempt to satisfy the concerns and demands that consumers had leveraged.

Subsequent interpretation of the Regulation EC n° 1924/2006 led to the conclusion that the term “probiotic” was a health claim and, as a consequence, should not be used in product labelling. Different countries, such as Italy or the Czech Republic, reacted to this by developing national regulations allowing the probiotic food labelling. Now Spain, on the basis of mutual recognition principle, accepts its use as well.

However, this new situation makes relevant again the challenges that consumers had identified two decades ago:  how to differentiate among the different available probiotic products and make an informed, purposeful purchase. This unsolved issue should now be addressed. In this context, we advocate for the development of easy-to-use guidelines targeted to regular consumers, not to clinicians or scientists, to provide consumers with the necessary tools to make their choice.

Related article: Spanish agency approves use of term ‘probiotic’ on food and supplements

References:

[1] https://www.aesan.gob.es/AECOSAN/web/seguridad_alimentaria/subdetalle/probioticos.htm

[2] Translation by the authors

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/labelling_nutrition_claim_reg-2006-124_guidance_en.pdf

[4] Guidance on the implementation of Regulation n° 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods conclusions of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health /14/12/2007

[5] Translation by the authors

[6] Translation by the authors

[7] Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/1668 of 10 November 2020 specifying the details and functionalities of the information and communication system to be used for the purposes of Regulation (EU) 2019/515 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the mutual recognition of goods lawfully marketed in another Member State.

[8] Regulation (EU) 2019/515 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 march 2019 on the mutual recognition of goods lawfully marketed in another Member State and repealing regulation (EC) nº 764/2008

ISAPP collaborates with NEC Society to help parents understand the role of probiotics in reducing the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis

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

To date, over 50 clinical trials on probiotics and necrotizing enterocolitis have been published. Medical organizations have considered the trials completed to date and have provided guidance (ESPHGAN) and recommendations (American Gastroenterological Association) for implementing probiotics in clinical practice.

As important as the science on this issue are the perspectives from parents of babies who have suffered from NEC or are at risk of developing the disease. Such parents consistently point to the need for credible and balanced educational materials about this condition. Recently, ISAPP has been fortunate to work with the NEC Society to develop materials that will help inform parents.

See the new ISAPP infographic Probiotics and Necrotizing Enterocolitis: What Parents Should Know.

Disponible también en español. Информация также доступна на русском языке.

Also, a recent ISAPP blog Probiotics to Prevent Necrotizing Enterocolitis: Moving to Evidence-Based Use by Dr. Ravi Patel MD, a neonatologist on the NEC Society’s Scientific Advisory Council, summarizes the state of the science supporting this use, including both controlled efficacy trials and post-implementation surveys.

The NEC Society is a nonprofit organization – the only US group dedicated to NEC – with the stated mission of “building a world without necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) through research, advocacy, and education.” They advocate for families affected by NEC by bringing together critical stakeholders to improve understanding, prevention, and treatment for NEC. Jennifer Canvasser founded the NEC Society in 2014 after her son, Micah, died from complications of NEC just before his first birthday. Micah was born at 27-week’s gestation, placing him at increased risk of NEC. Despite Micah’s risk factors and his parents asking the care team to consider offering Micah probiotics, he was not treated with probiotics. Although it is impossible to know if probiotics could have changed Micah’s course, his parents feel that more could have been done to better protect Micah from the devastation of NEC. Micah’s photo is featured in the new infographic co-created by ISAPP and the NEC Society.

“It is vital for healthcare providers to support NICU parents in understanding the protective and risk factors associated with NEC,” Canvasser shared. “Parents are the most important members of their baby’s care team. For parents to effectively engage and contribute, they need to be supported in accessing and understanding important information related to their child’s health. This new resource on probiotics and NEC will help to ensure that NICU parents are informed and feel encouraged to ask questions so they can best advocate for their child.”

The NEC Society intends to use the new infographic as a resource available to NICU parents and providers. It will be downloadable from the websites of both the NEC Society and ISAPP, and it will be shared via both social media platforms. Once in-person events are possible again, print versions will be made available. ISAPP will also work with the NEC Society’s Scientific Advisory Council to explore how we can further disseminate this resource to NICUs.

Read more about the efforts of the NEC Society here:

Head of the Herd: Jennifer Canvasser, Founder and Director, Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) Society

Family Reflections: harnessing the power of families to improve NEC outcomes

10 Things All Parents of NICU Babies Need to Know

9 Things You Need to Know About Necrotizing Enterocolitis

New ISAPP-led paper calls for investigation of evidence for links between live dietary microbes and health

The past two decades have brought a massive increase in knowledge about the human gut microbiota and its links to human health through diet. And although many people perceive that regular consumption of safe, live microbes will benefit their health, the scientific evidence to date has not been sufficiently developed to justify adding a daily recommended intake of live microbes to food guides for different populations.

Recently, a group of seven scientists, including six ISAPP board members, published their perspective about the value of establishing the link between live dietary microbes and health. They conclude that although the scientific community has a long way to go to build the evidence base, efforts to do this are worthwhile.

The collaboration on this review was rooted in an ISAPP expert discussion group held at the 2019 annual meeting in Antwerp, Belgium. During the discussion, various experts presented evidence from their fields—addressing the potential health benefits of live microbes in general, rather than the narrow group of microbial strains that qualify as probiotics.

Below, the authors of this new review answer questions about their efforts to quantify the relationship between greater consumption of live microbes and human health.

Why is it interesting to look at the potential importance of live microbes in nutrition?

Prof. Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, University of Minnesota

Current recommendations for fiber intake are based on protection against cardiovascular disease—so can we do something similar for live microbes? We know that intake of live microbes is thought to be health promoting, but actual recommended intakes for live microbes are missing.  Bringing together a talented group of microbiologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, and food policy experts moves this agenda forward.

Humans need proper nutrition to survive, and a lack of certain nutrients creates a ‘deficiency state’. Is this the case for live microbes?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, ISAPP Executive Science Officer

I don’t think we’ll find that live microbes are essential in the same way that vitamins and minerals lead to deficiency diseases. After all, gnotobiotic animal colonies are viable. But I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that consumption of live microbes will promote health. Exactly how and to what extent remains to be established.

Why think about intake of ‘live microbes’ in general, rather than intake of probiotic & fermented foods specifically?

Prof. Maria Marco, PhD, University of California Davis

We are constantly exposed to microorganisms in our foods and beverages, in the air, and on the things we touch. While much of our attention has been on the microbes that can cause harm, most of our microbial exposures may not affect us at all or, quite the opposite, be beneficial for maintaining and improving health. Research on probiotic intake as a whole supports this possibility. However, probiotic-containing foods and dietary supplements are only a part of our dietary connection with live microbes. Non-pasteurized fermented foods (such as kimchi and yogurts) can contain large numbers of non-harmful bacteria (>10^7 cells/g). Fruits and vegetables are also sources of living microbes when eaten raw.  Although those raw foods they may contain lower numbers of microbes, they may be more frequently eaten and consumed in larger quantities. Therefore, our proposal is that we take a holistic view of our diets when weighing the potential significance of live microbe intake on health and well-being.

What are dietary sources of live microbes? And do we get microbes in foods besides fermented & probiotic foods?

Prof. Bob Hutkins, PhD, University of Nebraska Lincoln

For tens of thousands of years, humans consumed large amounts of microbes nearly every time they ate food or drank liquids. Milk, for example, would have been unheated and held at ambient temperature with minimal sanitation and exposed to all sorts of microbial environments.  Thus, a cup of this milk could easily have contained millions of bacteria. Other foods like fruits and vegetables that were also exposed to natural conditions could have also contained similar levels of microbes. Even water would have contributed high numbers of live microbes.

Thanks to advances in food processing, hygiene, and sanitation, the contemporary western diet generally contains low levels of microbes. Consider how many foods we eat that are canned, pasteurized, or cooked – those foods will contain few, in any live microbes. Fresh produce can serve as a source of live microbes, but washing, and certainly cooking, will reduce those levels.

For sure, the most reliable sources of dietary microbes are fermented foods and beverages. Even if a fresh lettuce salad were to contribute a million bacteria, a single teaspoon of yogurt could contain 100 times more live bacteria. Other popular fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and miso, can contain a large and relatively diverse assortment of live microbes. Other fermented foods, such as cheese and sausage, are also potential sources, but the levels will depend on manufacturing and aging conditions. Many fermented, as well as non-fermented foods are also supplemented with probiotics, often at very high levels.

What’s the evidence that a greater intake of live microbes may lead to health benefits?

Prof. Dan Merenstein, MD, Georgetown University

Studies have shown that fermented foods are linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of weight gain, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, healthier metabolic profiles (blood lipids, blood glucose, blood pressure and insulin resistance), and altered immune responses. This link is generally from associative studies on certain fermented foods. Many randomized controlled trials on specific live microbes (probiotics and probiotic fermented foods) showing health benefits have been conducted, but randomized controlled trials on traditional fermented foods (such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha) are rare. Further, no studies have aimed to assess the specific contribution of safe, live microbes in diets as a whole on health outcomes.

Why is it difficult to interpret past data on people’s intake of live microbes and their health?

Prof. Colin Hill, PhD, University College Cork

It would be wonderful if there were a simple equation linking the past intake of microbes in the diet and the health status of an individual (# MICROBES x FOOD TYPE = HEALTH). In reality, this is a very complex challenge. Microbes are the most diverse biological entities on earth, our consumption of microbes has not been deliberately recorded and can only be estimated, and even the concept of health has defied precise definitions for centuries. To further confuse the situation microbes meet the host in the gastrointestinal tract, the site of our enormously complex mucosal immune system and equally complex microbiome.  But the complexity of the problem should not prevent us from looking for prima facie evidence as to whether or not such a relationship is likely to exist.

Databases of dietary information have data on people’s intake of live microbes, but what are the limitations of our available datasets?

Prof. Dan Tancredi, PhD, University of California Davis

Surveys often rely on food frequency questionnaires or diaries to determine consumption of specific foods. These are notoriously prone to recall error and/or other types of measurement error. So, even just measuring consumption of foods is difficult. For researchers seeking to quantify survey respondents’ consumption of live microbes, these challenges become further aggravated because the respondents would not typically know the microbial content in the foods they consumed. Instead, we would have to have them tell us the types and amounts of the foods they ate, and then we would need to translate that into approximate microbial counts—but even within a particular food, the microbial content can vary, depending on how it was processed, stored, and/or prepared prior to consumption.

See ISAPP’s press release on this paper here.

Update on harmonized guidelines for probiotics being developed by the Codex Alimentarius

By Prof. Gabriel Vinderola, PhD,  Associate Professor of Microbiology at the Faculty of Chemical Engineering from the National University of Litoral and Principal Researcher from CONICET at Dairy Products Institute (CONICET-UNL), Santa Fe, Argentina

In December 2017, at the 39th session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses (CCNFSDU) in Berlin, members of the Committee agreed to include in the agenda a discussion of harmonized guidelines on probiotics for use in foods and food supplements. Argentina supported this initiative and proposed itself to lead the work, building a guideline based on the present Argentinian framework on probiotics.

The first draft of the document was presented in 2018. Some countries supported the work to develop harmonized guidelines with a definition and minimum requirements for characterization, quality, and labeling, while other countries did not support the initiative, arguing that there was no perceived need to start this new work, it was not a priority for the Committee at that moment, and the document should be revised to provide more clarity on the need to start work on this topic.

Early in 2019, Argentina convened a panel of local experts to contribute to the discussion of the paper based on the issues raised in the first round of revision. I participated in that panel.

In November 2019, at the 41th meeting of the CCNFSDU, an updated version of the paper was presented. This revision clarified that the goal of the work was to produce a regulatory framework for the use of probiotics in food and food supplements. This objective is in line with the purpose of the Codex Alimentarius to guarantee safe and quality food and to ensure equity in international food trade.

In the course of the debate, some delegations favored the topic, stressing the value of regulatory harmonization within the Codex. They pointed out that framework could be based on the existing probiotic definition and guidelines of FAO and WHO, providing clear guidance and principles focused on the use of probiotics as ingredients. Delegations that opposed the new work noted that the Codex had already adopted principles and guidelines of a similar (horizontal) nature on issues such as labeling, claims, contaminants, safety and hygiene covering all foods, including food supplements, and that probiotic-specific regulations were not needed. FAO and WHO had also conducted work in this area.

After the debate, the Committee considered that the document presented needed further clarification, especially with regard to the scope and the issues raised in the discussion. Finally, it was agreed that Argentina and Malaysia would revise the document to be presented at the next plenary meeting of the Committee (42th meeting), to be held in November 2020. It was agreed that in order to assess the need to work on this topic, the new proposal should include a justification for additional probiotic-specific criteria in accordance with the mechanism for assigning Committee priorities.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 42th meeting has been postponed until November 2021, and a deadline of March 2021 was set for submitting the revised paper to the CCNFSDU.

The information reported in this post was kindly provided by Andrea Moser, Argentinian representative at the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods For Special Dietary Uses.

 

Locally produced probiotic yogurt for better nutrition and health in Uganda

By Prof. Seppo Salminen, Director of Functional Foods Forum, University of Turku, Turku, Finland

Can locally produced probiotic yogurt be a way to increase the health and wealth of people in resource-poor areas of Uganda? Recently Dr. Nieke Westerik, a researcher from the Netherlands, partnered with a local Ugandan team to explore a yogurt production and distribution program similar to one that had previously proved successful in low-income areas of Argentina.

Since 2008, “Yogurito Social Program” has been operating in Argentina and now some 350,000 schoolchildren in less developed provinces enjoy the benefits of daily probiotic yogurt developed locally. Dr. Westerik (Free University of Amsterdam and Yoba 4 Life Foundation), with support from former ISAPP board member Prof. Gregor Reid, has now helped adapt the program to local needs in Uganda, making use of a well-known probiotic (Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus GG) plus a yogurt starter (produced by the Yoba 4 Life Foundation) for production of the yogurt. The probiotic’s health effects have been demonstrated in human intervention studies.

The team worked on technical training and quality control of the locally produced yogurt, developing a production protocol suitable for Ugandan small-scale manufacture of probiotic fermented foods. Dr. Westerik’s team then conducted two clinical studies that demonstrated that the consumption of this probiotic product improved natural defenses and prevented respiratory infections (e.g. the common cold) and intestinal infections, which are the infectious conditions of greatest relevance in childhood in Uganda.

Yogurt is a new tool for individuals in developing areas of Uganda to achieve better health through diet, with potentially significant social and economic implications. Both the Ugandan and Argentinian experiences illustrate the power of microbes to positively impact the lives of women, men, and children. Given the positive results from these two different contexts, such activities could be replicated in other geographical areas—with either dairy, vegetable, or grain fermentations used locally with defined, well-studied starter cultures.

Further reading:

Julio Villena, Susana Salva, Martha Núñez, Josefina Corzo, René Tolaba, Julio Faedda, Graciela Font and Susana Alvarez. Probiotics for Everyone! The Novel Immunobiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus CRL1505 and the Beginning of Social Probiotic Programs in Argentina. International Journal of Biotechnology for Wellness Industries, 2012, 1, 189-198.

Westerik N. 2020. Locally produce probiotic yoghurt for better nutrition and increased incomes in Uganda. PhD thesis, Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Reid G, Kort R, Alvarez S, Bourdet- Sicard R, Benoit V, Cunningham M,  Saulnier DM, van Hylckama  Vlieg JET, Verstraelen H, Sybesma W.  Expanding the reach of probiotics through social enterprises. Beneficial Microbes, 9 (5): 707-715.

YOGURITO –the Argentinian social program with a special yogurt

 

 

 

Probiotics to Prevent Necrotizing Enterocolitis: Moving to Evidence-Based Use

By Ravi Mangal Patel, MD, Msc, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. rmpatel@nullemory.edu Twitter: @ravimpatelmd

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is one of the most lethal neonatal diseases, yet most people have never heard about it. The disease primarily affects preterm infants and is characterized by the development of intestinal inflammation. Clinically, the disease often manifests with an infant developing feeding intolerance or abnormal abdominal exam findings. The diagnosis is confirmed by abdominal x-ray or ultrasound. One of the key diagnostic radiographic findings is pneumatosis, which is air in the lumen of the bowel caused by gas-producing bacteria.

Dr Ravi Mangal Patel

NEC accounts for 1 out of every 10 deaths in US neonatal intensive care units. Among extremely preterm infants (those born at 22-28 weeks’ gestation) in the US, NEC is the most common single cause of death between 2 weeks and 2 months of age. Many infants with NEC undergo surgery to remove diseased bowel and those who recover and survive are at risk for long-term neurodevelopmental impairment and short bowel syndrome.

Decades of research into NEC have identified several key risk factors, including formula feeding, inconsistent feeding, abnormal intestinal oxygenation and [gut microbiota] dysbiosis. Studies have shown that dysbiosis, or abnormal intestinal colonization, is an important antecedent risk factor for the development of NEC. These studies have found that infants who develop NEC have an increase or bloom in the relative abundance of proteobacteria, compared to those who do not develop NEC. These proteobacteria, which contain a lipopolysaccharide coating, may lead to inflammation through their interaction with Toll-like receptor 4.

Given the role of dysbiosis in NEC, efforts to intervene by provision of probiotics to prevent NEC is a rational and extensively studied intervention, with over 63 randomized trials enrolling ~15,000 infants to date. The aforementioned meta-analysis, along with several others (Table 1), show probiotic supplementation results in large magnitude reductions in the risks of NEC and death and more modest reductions in the risks of late-onset sepsis. However, there is more limited data on extremely preterm infants and the quality or certainty of evidence for probiotics for the prevention of NEC was low in a recent Cochrane review.

 

Source: https://doi.org/10.1053/j.sempedsurg.2017.11.008

In the United States, an increasing number of centers have begun to routinely provide probiotics, with the greatest increase in use beginning in 2015. Observational studies evaluating routine probiotic use show benefits that are similar in magnitude to those from randomized trials, supporting the external validity of the results from the trials. This includes a large recent evaluation of probiotic use in the United States. Around the world, probiotic use is highly variable, from 100% of NICUs in New Zealand, 68% of NICUs in Germany, to 12% in the UK, 21% in Canada and 14% in the United States. Some of the variability in clinical use may be related to the uncertainty regarding the quality of commercially available probiotic products and need for clarity regarding strain-specificity of effects. There are many considerations both for and against routine use of probiotics to prevent NEC (Table 2). Current probiotic dietary supplements do not undergo FDA’s premarket review and approval requirements for safety and effectiveness or have to meet manufacturing and testing standards for drugs, and the potential risks were highlighted by a case of an infant death from a contaminated supplement. There is currently no FDA-approved live biotherapeutic product to prevent NEC.

Source: doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2019.05.009

Recent recommendations and guidance from ESPHGAN and the AGA also demonstrate that some medical organizations recognize the strength of the data in support of probiotic use to prevent NEC. It has been over two decades since the first study demonstrating the benefit of probiotic supplementation to prevent NEC in preterm infants. Now, more than ever, the evidence continues to accumulate regarding the beneficial effects of probiotic use in preterm infants as a compelling strategy to reduce the risks of both NEC and death. Therefore, considering the balance of potential risks and benefits including data from both randomized trials and routine implementation studies, my opinion is that the cumulative evidence to date supports routine probiotic use to prevent NEC and death in preterm infants.

As important is considering the parent voice regarding probiotic use. The NEC Society is a non-profit focused on NEC that has worked to incorporate the voice of the patient-family in clinical decisions.

Disclosures: Dr. Patel serves on the data-safety monitoring board of the Connection Study, which is a trial examining the use of an investigational probiotic to decrease the risk of NEC.

For further information, see this seminar by Dr. Patel: Practical Consideration for Probiotics in the NICU

Opportunity for research grants to help understand evidence linking live dietary microbes and health

For thousands of years, cultures across the globe have been consuming fermented foods, many of which contain diverse and numerous live microbes. Yet scientists are still puzzling over whether a greater intake of live microbes results in measurably better health. As part of long-term efforts to understand evidence for the health benefits of live dietary microbes and identify research gaps, ILSI North America is presenting a grant opportunity for researchers to help assess current scientific evidence for these links.

Researchers are invited to submit grant proposals, which should include the research approach along with anticipated challenges, resources, timeline, and key deliverables. The ILSI North America Gut Microbiome Committee also requests the inclusion of a suggested publication plan for the work. Budgets in the range of $100-150K will be considered. The deadline to submit the proposal is October 30, 2020 at 11:59PM EST. See here for more details.

ISAPP is supporting long-term efforts in this topic area. Its latest effort is the publication of a review paper (in press) on the links between dietary live microbes and health, called Should there be a recommended daily intake of microbes? The paper is authored by ISAPP board members Prof. Maria Marco, Prof. Colin Hill, Prof. Bob Hutkins, Prof. Dan Tancredi, Prof. Dan Merenstein, and Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders along with well-known nutrition researcher, Prof. Joanne Slavin.

ILSI North America is a non-profit scientific organization whose mission is to advance food safety and nutrition science for the benefit of public health. The organization engages academic, government, and industry experts by conducting­ research projects, workshops, seminars, and publications.

 

Citizen scientists step up for a research project on women’s health

By Prof. Sarah Lebeer, Research Professor in Microbiology and Molecular Biology, Department of Bioscience Engineering, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Lactobacilli are a very important group of bacteria that live on the human body and in many other environments on Earth. They have been linked to human health for more than 100 years already, but mainly in the context of digestive health and dairy-based fermented foods. Knowledge about other habitats and applications of lactobacilli is lagging behind, and surprisingly, we know little about where lactobacilli come from in the life of an individual or even in the evolution of humans. Studying the genetic capabilities of lactobacilli and their interactions with the host will give us a clearer picture of how these bacteria help us stay healthy.

This knowledge gap inspired me to apply for a European Research Council (ERC) grant. Last year I was awarded with this prestigious grant, which provides funding to explore novel aspects about the ecology and evolutionary history of lactobacilli.

Lactobacilli are dominant colonizers of the human vagina, where they play a key role in women’s health. Among the lactobacilli, I consider the vaginal lactobacilli as ‘mother lactobacilli’. As you might have noticed from our recent reclassification of the Lactobacillus genus complex, the vaginal type strains Lactobacillus crispatus, Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillus jensenii and Lactobacillus iners all belong to the Lactobacillus genus strictu sensu, because they are closely related to the first Lactobacillus species ever described: Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, originating from yogurt. So, the study of vaginal lactobacilli could also be seen as a study on the basics of the genus Lactobacillus and what makes this group so important for human health.

At present, it is not well understood why lactobacilli dominate the human vagina under healthy conditions. Interestingly, this appears to be the case only in humans and not in other mammals. We speculate that it is because lactobacilli have beneficial functions and, when transmitted from mother to infant in early life, have a peculiar capacity to inhibit dangerous pathogens for our offspring, including group B streptococci, Enterobacteriaceae, fungi and various viruses. Lactobacilli also have interesting immune modulatory capacities. A rather unique feature in humans is the menstrual cycle and the estrogen-stimulated production of glycogen being a major sugar source for the lactobacilli in the vagina, resulting in high production of lactic acid, an excellent antimicrobial molecule against numerous pathogens. But the short answer is that we have no really clear answer to these fundamental questions of human biology.

Because the ERC funding allows us to be a bit more aspirational than in our usual research endeavors, we decided to address some of these questions by engaging women as citizen scientists. So we launched an ambitious citizen science project on vaginal lactobacilli and women’s health, named the Isala Project (see www.isala.be — it’s only in Dutch, but easily translatable with Google Translate 😊). The project is named after Isala Van Diest (1842-1916), the very first female physician in Belgium.

Our initial ambition was to ask 200 healthy women at different points in their menstrual cycle to provide vaginal swabs for microbiome sequencing and culture of lactobacilli. Our plan was to launch the call for volunteers on International Women’s Day (March 8, 2020), but COVID-19 made us revise our plans. We postponed our call until March 24, realizing that most women were at home during the lockdown. We assumed that since the national news was dominated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it was going to be difficult to reach out with traditional news channels. However, within two weeks, more than 5500 women registered for Isala on our website and we even had to restrict sign-ups!

We thought many women would still drop out if they found out they had to fill in an extensive questionnaire with intimate and lifestyle-related questions, but this was not the case. Almost 4700 women filled out the extensive questionnaire, demonstrating strong enthusiasm, commitment, and engagement. We decided to send a self-sampling kit to all the women who had filled in the entire questionnaire and supplied their postal address. Over the summer, we sent 4100 self-sampling kits, and of these, 80% of the women have already sent back their swabs to us. Our lab members are overjoyed with the citizen science enthusiasm!

Even though managing the logistics of the postal packages was a huge administrative challenge, we managed to keep everything straight. Thanks to an amazing team of dedicated and super-organized PhD students, lab techs, postdocs, master students, clinicians, bio-informaticians, statisticians, and communication partners, we can now say that we are around halfway through the project. We have been able to process all swabs that arrived to DNA extracts (for microbiome sequencing) and glycerol stocks (for the lactobacilli biobank and metabolomics later). Within the next months, these samples will be run on our MiSeq for 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing; the functional, genetic, and metabolomic characterization will of course take much more time. Making vaginal microbiome profiles for all these citizen scientists by next spring is now our priority, as we want to send all participants a personal update by then.

With this project, we are also changing up the traditional publication timeline: we are communicating about the process while not having all the results yet. We will inform the participants about their microbiome profiles before we submit or publish the related peer-reviewed manuscripts. This is because we want to actively communicate with our participants, opening discussions on the topic — and empowering women, without delay, to think about their vaginal health. We even have suggested conversation starters on our website and in the sampling boxes.

Time will tell whether these efforts will pay off for women’s health! Citizen Science can sometimes be surprising, but so far, we are very happy with the contact we’ve made with our committed and enthusiastic participants. We even have a hashtag, ‘#LetsSwab for the future’. I highly encourage my fellow scientists to consider organizing citizen science projects on topics related to the human microbiome, probiotics and prebiotics, because it is a unique way to get inspired and to do research on a large scale.