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Early career researchers discuss the future of probiotics and prebiotics in the first ISAPP-SFA paper

By Irina Spacova, ISAPP-SFA 2019 President and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Antwerp, Belgium

Early career scientists play a vital and dynamic role in research, especially in environments supporting their enthusiasm and drive for innovation. ISAPP has long been promoting young researchers through its Students and Fellows Association (ISAPP-SFA), which is a student-led branch of ISAPP established in 2009. The SFA was championed and guided from its inception through June 2020 by Prof. Gregor Reid. Together with ISAPP, the organization encourages diversity and participation through free memberships and ISAPP meeting travel grants open to all students and fellows working in research institutions. Currently, ISAPP-SFA includes 450 members from 50 countries in Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe, and Australia.

The 2019 ISAPP meeting in Antwerp, Belgium was a milestone for ISAPP-SFA participation with 48 early career attendees from 19 countries. Facilitated by discussion clubs and poster sessions, the Antwerp meeting created an exceptional ‘melting pot’ of ideas. It was clear that young researchers had a lot to say, and the lingering idea of creating the first ISAPP-SFA paper finally took shape during the ISAPP 2019 dinner cruise of the Antwerp Harbor.

Less than a year later, the paper “Future of probiotics and prebiotics and the implications for early career researchers” was accepted in Frontiers in Microbiology, just in time for the 2020 ISAPP meeting. This initiative was driven by the ISAPP-SFA 2019 executive committee members Irina Spacova, Hemraj Dodiya, Anna-Ursula Happel, Conall Strain, Dieter Vandenheuvel, and Xuedan Wang. The core of the paper reflects what we as early career researchers believe are the biggest opportunities and challenges in advancing probiotic and prebiotic science, and summarizes a wide array of promising in vitro, in vivo and in silico tools. We emphasize the important goal of using probiotics and prebiotics to ameliorate global issues, and give examples of current initiatives in developing countries, such as Westernheadseast.ca and Yoba4Life.org. Our advice for early career researchers is to form inter-connected teams and implement the diverse toolsets to further advance the probiotics and prebiotics field.

We had a lot of fun with this paper, but also several challenges. It was not trivial to produce a concise paper with many opinions, techniques and references that would be useful to both young and established researchers. This intercontinental endeavor between young scientists working in Belgium, Japan, Ireland, South Africa, USA, and UK required a lot of early-morning and late-night meetings. Many interactions and discussions were necessary to deliver a novel perspective to add to the many excellent reviews on probiotics and prebiotics already published. Accessibility of the publication was a decisive factor, and one of the reasons why we chose to publish open access in Frontiers in Microbiology. Of course, this publication would not be possible without ISAPP, and we are especially grateful for the input and encouragement from Gregor Reid and Mary Ellen Sanders.

60 Minutes’ 13 minutes on probiotics

By Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, ISAPP Executive Science Officer 

On June 28, 60 Minutes aired a 13-minute segment about probiotics titled, “Do Probiotics Actually Do Anything?” Unfortunately the media segment did not provide listeners with a nuanced perspective.

‘Probiotics’ were treated as if they were one entity, ignoring the best approach to addressing the topic of what probiotics do: evaluate the evidence for specific strains, doses and endpoints, and then make a conclusion based on the totality of the evidence. They would have found that many experts agree that actionable evidence exists for certain probiotics to prevent antibiotic associated diarrhea (here, here), prevent upper respiratory tract infections (here), prevent morbidity and mortality associated with necrotizing enterocolitis (here,), treat colic (here), and treat acute pediatric gastroenteritis (here). (For an overall view of evidence, see here.)

Importantly, not all retail probiotics have evidence (at least evidence that is readily retrievable, see here and here). But that does not mean that none do.

The 60 Minutes segment also highlighted questions about probiotic safety. No intervention is without risk, and no one claims as much for probiotics. Prof. Dan Merenstein, MD, just one clinical investigator of probiotics, has collected over 20,000 pediatric clinical patient days’ worth of safety data over the past eight years of clinical investigation, with no indication of safety concerns. In fact, participants in the placebo group generally have more adverse events than in the probiotic groups. But importantly, the safety standard for probiotics was mischaracterized by 60 Minutes. According to Dr. James Heimbach, a food safety expert (not interviewed in the segment) who has conducted 41 GRAS determinations on probiotics, over 25 of them notified to the FDA, he objects to the statement that GRAS is a lower safety bar than a drug. He clarifies:

“The safety standard that applies to food additives and GRAS substances, “reasonable certainty of no harm,” is a far higher standard than that applying to drugs. Drugs are judged against a risk/benefit standard, which can potentially allow quite dangerous drugs on the market provided they offer a significant benefit. The safety standard for drugs also applies only to prescribed doses for specific individuals over prescribed durations. The food-additive/GRAS substance standard, on the other hand, requires safety at any biologically plausible level of intake, for any person (child, adult, elderly; pregnant; etc.), over a lifetime. And it is a risk-only standard—no potential benefit is allowed to override the “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard. Additionally, in the case of GRAS substances (which includes most probiotics), the evidence of safety must be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and be widely accepted by the scientific community as well as by government regulators.”

Finally, the story implied that benefits people claim for themselves when using probiotics are due to a placebo effect. This ignores the many properly controlled studies directly comparing the effects of specific probiotics to placebos. A positive trial on probiotics, such as observed in this recent trial on irritable bowel syndrome symptoms (here) and in most trials included in Cochrane meta-analyses on prevention of C. difficile-associated diarrhea (here), means that positive effects were observed beyond any placebo effect. The placebo effect is real, equally applicable to probiotics and drugs, but as with all clinically evaluated substances, properly controlled trials control for this effect.

The probiotic field has come a long way over the past 20 years with regard to number and quality of clinical trials. In that time, well-done systematic reviews of the evidence have found benefits for specific probiotics for specific conditions, while also finding a lack of evidence for beneficial effects in other contexts. There are of course well-conducted clinical trials that have failed to demonstrate benefit (here, here, here). This should not be equated to mean that probiotics do not do anything.

Many challenges remain for improving the quality of the evidence across the wide range of different strains, doses, endpoints and populations. More clinical research needs to be conducted in a manner that minimizes bias and is reported according to established standards. Confidence in the quality of commercial products could be improved by industry adopting third party verification (here), and the quality of products targeting compromised populations need to be fit for purpose (here). Companies should stop using the term ‘probiotic’ on products that have no evidence warranting that description. We need to understand much better how a person’s individual situation, such as diet, microbiome, use of medications and fitness, impact the ability of a probiotic to promote health. Much remains to be learned in this evolving and exciting field. As Dr. Merenstein says, “The key question is not, ‘Do probiotics actually do anything?’, as that is easily answered ‘yes’ when you look at robust placebo-controlled trials of specific probiotics. Better questions are ‘Which probiotics do anything, and for what?’”

Further reading:

Misleading press about probiotics: ISAPP responses

ISAPP take-home points from American Gastroenterological Association guidelines on probiotic use for gastrointestinal disorders

New publication gives a rundown on probiotics for primary care physicians

Safety and efficacy of probiotics: Perspectives on JAMA viewpoint

ISAPP take-home points from American Gastroenterological Association guidelines on probiotic use for gastrointestinal disorders

By ISAPP Board of Directors

June 15, 2020

The recent American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) Clinical Practice Guidelines on the Role of Probiotics in the Management of Gastrointestinal Disorders provided the AGA’s assessment of evidence.

Considering these AGA recommendations for probiotics to prevent necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and C. difficile infection, all hospital formularies should stock at least one appropriately tested probiotic. Further, all physicians should consider recommending appropriately tested probiotics for their patients for whom they prescribe antibiotics.

Here are ISAPP’s other key take-home points:

  1. AGA conditionally recommends certain probiotics for 3 of 8 disease uses that they assessed*.
  2. For preterm infants, AGA conditionally recommends 13 different probiotic preparations to prevent NEC. Considering that probiotics are currently used in only 14% of US neonatal intensive care units, this is a very significant recommendation.
  3. For adults and children on antibiotics, AGA conditionally recommends certain probiotics to prevent C. difficile infection. However, AGA did not examine evidence for probiotics for managing diarrheal side effects of antibiotics, a well-studied endpoint for probiotics for which they make no recommendation.
  4. Seven of the recommended probiotics or probiotic combinations for prevention of NEC and three recommended for prevention of C. difficile infection do not specify strains, even though the AGA guidelines paper states, “Within species, different strains can have widely different activities and biologic effects.” This lack of strain specificity in the recommendations will likely lead to confusion for implementation of these recommendations.
  5. AGA did not recommend probiotics for children or adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for two endpoints, global response (overall symptoms) and abdominal pain severity. However, this should not be interpreted as a lack of evidence for ‘digestive’ symptoms, considering the exclusion criteria imposed.
    • The technical report states that 22 studies in IBS subjects were excluded from analysis, representing a potentially important gap in available evidence. Studies were excluded when no extractable data were reported and the corresponding author failed to provide data after two attempts of being contacted. Examples of excluded studies are here, here, here, and here, and this study was published after AGA’s December 2018 literature search cutoff. These studies could have been included by estimating effect sizes of interest using standard meta-analytical methods for the types of effect sizes that were reported in those excluded studies. However, because of the level of evidence AGA required, the overall conclusion may not have been different if such studies had been included.
    • Only studies on subjects diagnosed with IBS that reported on global response or abdominal pain severity were included, excluding studies on other clinically meaningful endpoints. Many studies on endpoints such as occasional diarrhea, occasional constipation, gut transit time, or individual digestive symptoms outside the context of IBS such as gas, bloating, or distension have been conducted (for example, here, here). Such benefits can be meaningful and very helpful to people afflicted with such symptoms that severely impact quality of life.
  6. AGA recommended against the use of probiotics for acute pediatric diarrhea. Although the technical report considered evidence from over 50 trials (for comparison, the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition working group on probiotics identified over 150 randomized, controlled trials for its document), AGA ultimately opted to base its recommendation on only trials conducted in North America, all null. Differences in rotavirus vaccination rates and time of initiation of probiotic therapy may have accounted for null results in two trials. (See rhamnosus GG for treatment of acute pediatric diarrhea: the totality of current evidence and Late initiation of probiotic therapy for acute pediatric gastroenteritis may account for null results for more on this topic.) Although AGA is an American organization, its recommendations carry weight globally, so it is unfortunate that AGA did not word its recommendation in the Summary of recommendations (Table 3) as applying only to North America.
  7. Doses were not stipulated in the recommendations.
  8. Probiotics have been studied for endpoints far beyond the eight endpoints considered by AGA (see here for a review of other evidence), including benefits for generally healthy people.
  9. AGA guidelines are not solely based on the balance between the benefits and harms of the interventions, but considered patients’ values and preferences, resource use (i.e. cost), health equity, acceptability, and feasibility (the Evidence to Decision Framework). As such, AGA’s recommendations differ in significant ways from other societies’ evidence-based recommendations, including the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN), World Gastroenterology Organisation, European Crohn’s and Colitis Organization, and European Society for Primary Care Gastroenterology.

ISAPP agrees with AGA that additional human efficacy trials are needed, all human trials on probiotics should be conducted in a manner that will minimize bias, and study results should be made available to the scientific community for assessment, irrespective of outcome. Yet ISAPP also agrees with Purna Kashyap MD, a co-author of AGA’s technical report upon which their recommendations were based, who in an unrelated article states, “Diet plays a very significant role in the health of our microbiome – the food we eat provides nutrient to support both the growth and diversity of our microbiota. A diverse diet rich in prebiotic and probiotic foods is optimal.” The AGA recommendations do not address such uses of probiotics, and the negative headlines that resulted from the AGA’s press release on these guidelines may discourage probiotic use where it may be beneficial.

AGA’s recommendations sometimes lack clarity for clinicians regarding which specific strains are recommended.  Further, considering the limited scope of this review and the positive recommendations for three indications for probiotic use, ISAPP considers that conclusions such as “Probiotics don’t do much for most people’s gut health despite the hype” (CNN, June 9) leave the impression that the findings of the AGA review were broader and more negative than the data support.

 

*AGA evaluated the evidence by the GRADE criteria for use of probiotics on the following GI diseases:

  1. In symptomatic adults with confirmed Clostridioides difficile infection, should probiotics be used as part of the treatment regimen?
  2. In adults and children receiving antibiotic therapy for any indication except C. difficile infection, should probiotics be used to prevent C. difficile-associated diarrhea?
  3. In adults and children with Crohn’s disease, should probiotics be used for induction or maintenance of remission?
  4. In adults and children with ulcerative colitis, should probiotics be used for induction or maintenance of remission?
  5. In adults and children with ileal pouch-anal anastomosis for chronic ulcerative colitis, should probiotics be used for prevention or maintenance of remission of pouchitis?
  6. In symptomatic children and adults with irritable bowel syndrome, should probiotics be used to improve global response or abdominal pain severity?
  7. In children with acute infectious gastroenteritis, should probiotics be used to reduce the duration or severity of diarrhea?
  8. In preterm, low birthweight newborns, should probiotics be used to prevent necrotizing enterocolitis, sepsis, and all-cause mortality?

 

Related articles

https://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Article/2020/06/12/AGA-issues-guidelines-for-probiotics-for-sick-at-risk-populations

ISAPP welcomes three new board members

By Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, ISAPP Executive Science Officer

ISAPP is pleased to announce that Profs. Kelly Swanson PhD, Daniel Tancredi PhD, and Gabriel Vinderola PhD have joined the ISAPP board of directors. The expertise of these three globally recognized academic experts complements that of the current board members, together comprising a leading global group of distinguished scientific and clinical experts in the fields of probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, fermented foods, and postbiotics.

Read more about ISAPP’s newest board members:

Kelly Swanson is the Kraft Heinz Company Endowed Professor in Human Nutrition, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and Division of Nutritional Sciences and an adjunct professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is an expert in the field of fiber and prebiotics, and brings to ISAPP knowledge of application of these substances to companion and agricultural animals. Kelly, who trained with previous ISAPP Board member, George Fahey, is considered one of the top authorities in animal gut health, microbiome, and nutrition. His research has focused on testing the effects of nutritional intervention on health outcomes, identifying mechanisms by which nutrients impact gastrointestinal microbiota, host gene expression, and host physiology. Kelly served on the prebiotic consensus panel (here), led the ISAPP synbiotics consensus panel, and is lead author on the synbiotics outcome paper, currently in press with Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Dan Tancredi is a biostatistician with an appointment as an Associate Professor (full professor starting July 1, 2020) in Residence at UC Davis Department of Pediatrics, and is also with the Center for Healthcare Policy and Research. Dan works extensively on NIH-sponsored research and as an NIH scientific reviewer. He has an extensive record of collaboration with ISAPP; he has served as an invited expert and/or speaker at all but one ISAPP meeting since 2009, providing his perspectives on how to improve the quality and scientific impact of probiotic trials and how to conduct systematic reviews that rigorously and transparently synthesize the evidence from these trials. He has been a co-author on 6 ISAPP papers (here, here, here, here, here, here and here), including a 2020 paper “Probiotics as a Tx Resource in Primary Care” published in the Journal of Family Practice (see New publication gives a rundown on probiotics for primary care physicians). Dan was invited to author the Nature commentary on the landmark probiotics trial by Panigrahi, et al. for reducing newborn sepsis in the developing world—showing his reputation as a trusted voice for assessing the quality of probiotic research.

Gabriel Vinderola is a professor at National University of Litoral, Santa Fe, Argentina and Principal Researcher at CONICET, at the Dairy Products Institute (UNLCONICET). He is an expert in lactic acid bacteria, fermented foods, and probiotics. Gabriel has forged academic collaborations with academic and industrial scientists in numerous countries in Europe and with industrial colleagues in Argentina. He has been active in several countries in South America working with regulators to assure that their actions on probiotic guidelines are science-based, including his recent efforts consulting on guidelines for probiotics for the Codex Alimentarius. He has written blogs for ISAPP, translated ISAPP videos and infographics into Spanish, and was an expert on the ISAPP consensus panel on postbiotics. His research has focused on technological aspects of probiotics (biomass production, dehydration, storage, food matrices) and fermented foods. He is an active public science communicator in Argentina on the topics of probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods, and the microbiome. See Growing interest in beneficial microbes and fermented foods in Argentina for some examples. Gabriel represents the first ISAPP board member from South America and we anticipate his involvement will help ISAPP expand its presence and connections in Latin America.

 

New publication gives a rundown on probiotics for primary care physicians

With an increasing number of patients becoming aware of the human microbiome and its role in health, primary care physicians are faced with questions about probiotics as a possible strategy for maintaining health. Patients may see conflicting messages in the news and on product labels – so how can they know which probiotic benefits are scientifically proven?

A new publication in the Journal of Family Practice provides a quick update on evidence for the use of probiotics in different indications, so primary care physicians can equip themselves to provide evidence-based recommendations and to answer patients’ most commonly asked questions about probiotics.

Written by ISAPP board members Daniel J. Merenstein, MD and Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, along with Daniel J. Tancredi, PhD, the article provides practical advice in the form of practice recommendations, along with comments about safety data from numerous clinical trials.

As Dr. Merenstein stated, “We wrote this article for working clinicians. They are interested in the science but are busy and want a straightforward evidence-based resource. We are hopeful this will be a go-to resource during the busy clinic day.”

Verbatim from the article are the following practice recommendations:

  • Consider specific probiotics to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea, reduce crying time in colicky infants, and improve therapeutic effectiveness of antibiotics for bacterial vaginosis.
  • Consider specific probiotics to reduce the risk for Clostridioides (formerly Clostridium) difficile  infections, to treat acute  pediatric diarrhea, and to manage symptoms of constipation.
  • Check a product’s label to ensure that it includes the probiotic’s genus, species, and strains; the dose delivered in colony-forming units through the end of shelf life; and expected benefits.

The full text can be accessed by logging into Medscape.

How some probiotic scientists are working to address COVID-19

By ISAPP board of directors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapid, collaborative effort

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

ISAPP provides guidance on use of probiotics and prebiotics in time of COVID-19

By ISAPP board of directors

Summary: No probiotics or prebiotics have been shown to prevent or treat COVID-19 or inhibit the growth of SARSCoV-2. We recommend placebo-controlled trials be conducted, which have been undertaken by some research groups. If being used in clinical practice in advance of such evidence, we recommend a registry be organized to collect data on interventions and outcomes.  

Many people active in the probiotic and prebiotic fields have been approached regarding their recommendations for using these interventions in an attempt to prevent or treat COVID-19. Here, the ISAPP board of directors provides some basic facts on this topic.

What is known. Some human trials have shown that specific probiotics can reduce the incidence and duration of common upper respiratory tract infections, especially in children (Hao et al. 2015; Luoto et al. 2014), but also with some evidence for adults (King et al. 2014) and nursing home residents (Van Puyenbroeck et al. 2012; Wang et al. 2018). However, not all evidence is of high quality and more trials are needed to confirm these findings, as well as determine the optimal strain(s), dosing regimens, time and duration of intervention. Further, we do not know how relevant these studies are for COVID-19, as the outcomes are for probiotic impact on upper respiratory tract infections, whereas COVID-19 is also a lower respiratory tract infection and inflammatory disease.

There is less information on the use of prebiotics for addressing respiratory issues than there is for probiotics, as they are used mainly to improve gut health. However, there is evidence supporting the use of galactans and fructans in infant formulae to reduce upper respiratory infections (Shahramian et al. 2018; Arslanoglu et al. 2008). A meta-analysis of synbiotics also showed promise in repressing respiratory infections (Chan et al. 2020).

Mechanistic underpinnings. Is there scientific evidence to suggest that probiotics or prebiotics could impact SARS-CoV-2? Data are very limited. Some laboratory studies have suggested that certain probiotics have anti-viral effects including against other forms of coronavirus (Chai et al. 2013). Other studies indicate the potential to interfere with the main host receptor of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). For example, during milk fermentation, some lactobacilli have been shown to release peptides with high affinity for ACE (Li et al. 2019). Recently, Paenibacillus bacteria were shown to naturally produce carboxypeptidases homologous to ACE2 in structure and function (Minato et al. 2020). In mice, intranasal inoculation of Limosilactobacillus reuteri (formerly Lactobacillus reuteri) F275 (ATCC 23272) has been shown to have protective effects against lethal infection from a pneumonia virus of mice (PVM) (Garcia-Crespo et al. 2013). These data point towards immunomodulatory effects involving rapid, transient neutrophil recruitment in association with proinflammatory mediators but not Th1 cytokines. A recent study demonstrated that TLR4 signaling was crucial for the effects of preventive intranasal treatment with probiotic Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus (formerly Lactobacillus rhamnosus) GG in a neonatal mouse model of influenza infection (Kumova et al., 2019). Whether these or other immunomodulatory effects, following local or oral administration, could be relevant to SARS-CoV-2 infections in humans is at present not known.

Our immune systems have evolved to respond to continual exposure to live microbes. Belkaid and Hand (2016) state: “The microbiota plays a fundamental role on the induction, training, and function of the host immune system. In return, the immune system has largely evolved as a means to maintain the symbiotic relationship of the host with these highly diverse and evolving microbes.” This suggests a mechanism whereby exposure to dietary microbes, including probiotics, could positively impact immune function (Sugimura et al. 2015; Jespersen et al. 2015).

The role of the gut in COVID-19. Many COVID-19 patients present with gastrointestinal symptoms and also suffer from sepsis that may originate in the gut. This could be an important element in the development and outcome of the disease. Though results from studies vary, it is evident that gastrointestinal symptoms, loss of taste, and diarrhea, in particular, can be features of the infection and may occur in the absence of overt respiratory symptoms. There is a suggestion that gastrointestinal symptoms are associated with a more severe disease course. Angiotensin converting enzyme 2 and virus nucleocapsid protein have been detected in gastrointestinal epithelial cells, and infectious virus particles have been isolated from feces. In some patients, viral RNA may be detectable in feces when nasopharyngeal samples are negative. The significance of these findings in terms of disease transmission is unknown but, in theory, do provide an opportunity for microbiome-modulating interventions that may have anti-viral effects (Cheung et al. 2020; Tian et al. 2020; Han et al. 2020).

A preprint (not peer reviewed) has recently been released, titled ‘Gut microbiota may underlie the predisposition of healthy individuals to COVID-19’ (Gao et al. 2020) suggesting that this could be an interesting research direction and worthy of further discussion. A review of China National Health Commission and National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine guidelines also suggested probiotic use, although more work on specific strains is needed (Mak et al. 2020).

Are probiotics or prebiotics safe? Currently marketed probiotics and prebiotics are available primarily as foods and food/dietary supplements, not as drugs to treat or prevent disease. Assuming they are manufactured in a manner consistent with applicable regulations, they should be safe for the generally healthy population and can be consumed during this time.

Baud et al. (in press) presented a case for probiotics and prebiotics to be part of the management of COVID-19. Although not fully aligned with ISAPP’s official position, readers may find the points made and references cited of interest.

Conclusion. We reiterate, currently no probiotics or prebiotics have been shown to prevent or treat COVID-19 or inhibit the growth of SARSCoV-2.

 

Connecting with the ISAPP community: Continuing to advance the science of probiotics and prebiotics

By Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, executive science officer, ISAPP

On behalf of the ISAPP board of directors, I am reaching out to the ISAPP community to say we hope you are doing well and taking all the necessary steps in your local communities to remain healthy. At present, the global ISAPP community is physically distant but digitally close, and it is important for us to remain connected and strong.

ISAPP’s activities are as important as ever during this time of increased attention to health, and ISAPP is continuing to uphold its commitment to (1) stewardship, (2) advancing the science, and (3) working with stakeholders. Although our annual meeting, which some of you may have initially planned to attend, has been cancelled, other ISAPP activities are continuing or expanding as follows:

 

  • Building on an important topic for our annual meeting, ISAPP is working to develop a strategic approach to communicating the science on probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods, synbiotics, and postbiotics.
  • The ISAPP board of directors is pleased that our founding board members, Profs. Gregor Reid and Glenn Gibson, have agreed to remain on the board until the 2021 meeting, in particular to help with long-range planning. New academic board members will also be elected, thereby expanding the board. Working together, we will bring fresh insights, strategies and global reach.
  • The board is considering how best to approach our cancelled meeting. In lieu of re-scheduling this year’s in-person meeting, we are planning to have virtual content covering some of the originally scheduled topics. Some discussion group topics will be carried over to the 2021 meeting, while others will be addressed virtually. We will communicate further on this soon.
  • Our newsletter will continue on a monthly basis.
  • Blog postings, which are aimed at either consumers or scientists, remain timely and popular – with new contributions posted on average every 2-3 weeks. Authored by board members and other experts in the field, these blogs provide a forum for opinions and observations on current issues and controversies as well as insights on global fermented foods, critical regulatory actions, and other relevant topics.
  • ISAPP filed comments on March 17 with the American Gastroenterological Association in response to their draft recommendations for probiotic use in GI conditions.
  • Spearheaded by former ISAPP IAC representative to the board, Dr. Roberta Grimaldi, ISAPP has subtitled several of the most popular ISAPP videos in different languages, including Dutch, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Italian and Indonesian. The first of these should be posted by end of April.
  • The ISAPP-Students and Fellows Association has launched a blog program to provide perspectives by young scientists on issues of importance to the probiotic and prebiotic fields. They have also submitted a manuscript to Frontiers in Microbiology discussing a toolkit needed for their future in science: “Future of probiotics and prebiotics: an early career researchers’ perspective”.
  • Three consensus panels have been conducted since May of 2019. A manuscript arising from the synbiotics panel, chaired by Prof. Kelly Swanson, is in press with Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology. The paper summarizing the consensus panel on fermented foods, chaired by Profs. Robert Hutkins and Maria Marco, is almost ready for submission to Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology. A manuscript from the consensus panel on postbiotics, chaired by Prof. Seppo Salminen, is currently being written. All three papers are expected to provide clarity to the field with regard to definition of terms, current evidence for health benefits, and impact on stakeholders.
  • In addition to the three consensus panel papers in progress, several different ISAPP endeavors are at different stages of publication:
    • ISAPP vice president, Prof. Dan Merenstein, and executive science officer, Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, worked with biostatistician and frequent ISAPP contributor, Prof. Dan Tancredi, to summarize evidence for clinical endpoints for probiotics, to be published in the Journal of Family Physicians. This paper, titled “Probiotics as a Tx resource in primary care”. The paper is currently in press.
    • Several ISAPP board members and other participants in a 2019 meeting discussion group recently submitted to Current Developments in Nutrition a paper titled “Dietary Recommendation on Adequate Intake of Live Microbes: A Path Forward”.
    • Marla Cunningham, the current IAC representative to the ISAPP board, has led an effort to compile results from the IAC Learning Forum from the 2019 ISAPP meeting on the topic of matrix effects impacting probiotic and prebiotic functionality. Manuscript in preparation.
    • Colin Hill and I represented ISAPP on a paper under review at Nutrients initiated by IPA-Europe titled “Criteria to qualify microorganisms as ‘probiotic’ in foods and dietary supplements”. This paper consolidates and fleshes out minimum criteria for use of the term ‘probiotic’ published by different groups, including the 2002 FAO/WHO working group, the 2014 ISAPP consensus paper on probiotics, and the 2018 ISAPP discussion group on global harmonization.
    • Glenn Gibson and Marla Cunningham are coordinating a paper titled “The future of probiotics and prebiotics in human health” as an output from their 2019 discussion group.

See here for all published ISAPP papers.

ISAPP board members, 2019 annual meeting

Messages about probiotics and COVID-19

With many conflicting and confusing health messages circulating during this global pandemic, including some criticisms of our field as well as some unsupported claims made by certain individuals and companies, ISAPP will remain an important touchstone for scientifically accurate information. Focusing on health effects is key to demonstrating probiotic and prebiotic efficacy, and we acknowledge that human studies are the ultimate measure of efficacy, but also, elucidating mechanisms of action help us understand how these interventions interface with the immune system and other mediators of health.  Currently, there is some evidence that certain probiotics/prebiotics can reduce the risk of viral infections (discussed in other blog posts here and here), but it is important to remember that they have not been studied specifically for COVID-19 prevention or treatment. This must be acknowledged when communicating with the wider community.

We greatly appreciate the continued support of our IAC members. The ISAPP Board, colleagues, and SFA will continue to chart a course forward in preparation for life after the pandemic. Our intent is to emerge from these experiences more connected and purposeful than ever. We welcome suggestions on how collectively we can endure and strengthen the science and communications that remain foundations of our field.

 

 

 

Safety and efficacy of probiotics: Perspectives on JAMA viewpoint

By Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, executive science officer, ISAPP,  and Daniel Merenstein MD, Department of Family Medicine, Georgetown University School of Medicine

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a short viewpoint that called into question the safety and efficacy of probiotics. After careful review, we concluded that some opinions expressed were not consistent with available data. We share our perspectives here.

Claim 1: The paucity of high-quality data supporting the value of probiotics.

The authors speak to the “paucity” and “lack” of data supporting probiotic use. They criticize probiotic meta-analyses in general, even though there are many well-done ones, which describe clear PICOS, assess the quality of studies included, and assess publication bias. Many conclude that there is evidence that certain probiotics may be beneficial for several clinical endpoints. In the case of treatment of colic, an individual participant data meta-analysis was conducted on a single strain, and concluded “L reuteri DSM17938 is effective and can be recommended for breastfed infants with colic” (Sung et al. 2018). For necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a change in practice is recommended by a Cochrane meta-analysis (AlFaleh et al. 2018), which is consistent with draft American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) recommendations posted last month. In some cases, conclusions are qualified as being based on low quality data, which is also the case with many standard-of-care medical interventions. Other benefits supported for certain probiotics by evidence are shown in Table 1 of Sanders et al. 2018. But an evidence-based review of available data would not support a general statement that “data are lacking.”

Instead, we think a discussion of what evidence is actionable is reasonable to have. For this discussion, different people or groups can reasonably set the bar at different levels for what constitutes actionable evidence. But several medical organizations, including the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, World Gastroenterology Organisation, American College of Gastroenterology, AGA (proposed, for antibiotic-associated diarrhea, NEC and pouchitis), European Crohn’s and Colitis Organization, and European Society for Primary Care Gastroenterology have actionable recommendations for probiotic use for one or more indications. For those indications, any individual physician may judge that the available evidence as not convincing to him or her, but many qualified healthcare experts did find the evidence convincing and have made recommendations accordingly. We recognize that the JAMA viewpoint was limited in the number of words and references allowed, but to impugn an entire field, the authors are obliged to explain why their views differ so much from established organizations.

The authors also criticize the inclusion of small, single-center trials in probiotic meta-analyses. They state such studies have less oversight, are more susceptible to misconduct and are at greater risk of bias than larger, multicenter trials, and thereby skew conclusions of meta-analyses in favor of probiotics. They state, without evidence, that small trials are more likely to show large effects and are more likely to be published. They advocate for meta-analyses that only include multi-center trials, thereby ignoring much available evidence on the basis of unsubstantiated preferences. There are a number of reasons why some trials are multi-center, but improved quality or closer monitoring are not among them (see here, here and here). Multicenter trials may be necessary to study a rare medical endpoint, a condition with an expected small effect size but significant health implications, or to accelerate the time course for a study. In fact, an analysis of 81 meta-analyses of RCTs in 2012 concluded:

“Our results do not support prior findings of larger effects in SC (single-center) than MC (multi-center) trials addressing binary outcomes but show a very similar small increase in effect in SC than MC trials addressing continuous outcomes. Authors of systematic reviews would be wise to include all trials irrespective of SC vs. MC design and address SC vs. MC status as a possible explanation of heterogeneity (and consider sensitivity analyses).” [Emphasis ours]

 

In our experience, the size of a study does not inevitably minimize risk of bias. We have directly witnessed private physicians enroll for large multi-site trials without such oversight or professionalism. As the great David Sackett said in his paper from 20 years ago, “The more detailed the entry form and eligibility criteria for ‘somebody else’s’ RCT, the greater the risk the criteria will be ignored, misunderstood or misapplied by distracted clinicians who regard them as further intrusions into an overfull call schedule.” Further, due to often being underpowered, taken alone smaller studies are less, not more, likely to generate positive findings than larger trials. But when they are included in a meta-analysis, these studies contribute to the total body of evidence. We have personally worked on many single-center randomized controlled trials on probiotics. These often have monitors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and/or the National Institutes of Health, they are all registered with both primary and secondary outcomes listed, they utilize a data safety monitoring board, they undergo true allocation concealment, and otherwise are conducted to minimize risk of bias. To criticize probiotic studies for being single-center vs multicenter seems unjustified and baseless.

It is quite true that many of the studies conducted on probiotics were done 15 or more years ago, and the quality standards do not meet what we expect today. We wholeheartedly agree but would ask the authors to review studies conducted on drugs 15 years ago, and they will see the same issues. So we agree that more trials using modern quality standards are needed in the field of probiotics, as is the case for any interventions with a long history of being studied.

Claim 2: Potentially biased reviews of probiotic efficacy

In trying to explain why physicians might recommend probiotics, the authors speculate that some professional societies and some journals may be insufficiently critical in reviewing probiotic studies due to financial conflicts of interest. We have no doubt that there is bias in the scientific realm, which is not just limited to financial conflicts of interest, but question if there is any evidence that this occurs any more or less frequently with probiotics compared to any other realm of science. To leverage this accusation at the probiotic field specifically implies it is especially egregious, but no data supporting this accusation were provided. Also there is no face validity for this accusation. There is much more money to be made by pharmaceuticals and medical interventions than probiotic supplements and yogurts.

Claim 3: Complex framework in which probiotics are regulated and sold

The regulatory framework for probiotics can be difficult to navigate and is not always in the best interest of stakeholders, but we don’t think it’s reasonable to criticize the probiotic field for this situation. In the USA, probiotic products are bound by law that was enacted by Congress and the rules/guidance developed by the FDA for allowable product claims, levels of required regulatory oversight, and lack of requirements for premarket approval. It is fair to criticize Congress and the FDA for these circumstances surrounding the category of dietary supplements, but doing this in the context of an article on probiotics unfairly maligns probiotics.

Drugs vs dietary supplements. Most probiotics are sold as foods or dietary supplements. Since probiotics were first described as fermenting microbes in soured milk, this makes historical sense. Companies and consumers do not view these products as drugs, and in most cases they are not used as drugs. Outside a regulatory mindset, it makes perfect sense for foods to be useful for promoting health and managing symptoms, and this is what has driven 30 years of research and marketing of probiotics. Forcing all probiotics into a drug rubric would deprive consumers of access, would greatly increase their cost, and would preclude responsible food/supplement manufacturers from producing them. Drugs are drugs primarily to protect the safety of the patient. All drugs are assessed with a risk/benefit balance, and in some cases, the risk is significant. In the case of probiotics, we agree with the authors that most probiotics are likely safe for the general population. We see no reasonable justification to advocate that these products must all be researched and sold as drugs.

Probiotic product quality.The authors seem to prefer the drug model for probiotics based on a perceived need for improved product quality and oversight. Yet all foods and dietary supplements in the USA are required by law to be manufactured under good manufacturing practices. This includes most every product bought at the grocery store and served for dinner as well as probiotic foods and supplements. Further, companies are required to label their products in a truthful and not misleading fashion, including representations of contents and claims. Companies that fail to meet these standards are in violation of the law. Yes, there are products – of all types – that fall short of these requirements. The many responsible probiotic manufacturers and probiotic scientists decry such occurrences. However, these cases do not define the probiotic field any more than medical errors define physicians. It is not fair to impugn the entire probiotic industry based on the ‘bad apples’ that participate in it. A 2017 ESPGHAN review cites surveys of probiotic products from different regions globally, most of which report examples of probiotic products falling short in some quality attribute. Such surveys highlight quality problems, but due to sampling and methodological approaches, their results do not provide a reliable estimate of the extent of problem among commercial probiotic products. Many probiotic products are produced responsibly and are subjected to third party quality audits. The absence of such third party documentation is not evidence of poor quality, but we agree that it serves to improve consumer and healthcare provider confidence (see Jackson et al. 2019), and if more fully adopted, would weed out irresponsible probiotic manufacturers.

Oversight of probiotic research. The authors state, “If a manufacturer claims that any product, including a probiotic, cures, mitigates, treats, or prevents disease, the product is classified as a drug, thereby triggering a costly Investigational New Drug (IND) application process.” However, they seem to conflate the regulatory approach to product claims and the regulatory oversight of biologic drug research. In the case of product claims, if a product claims to cure, treat, prevent or mitigate disease, it is by definition a drug. If it has not undergone appropriate drug approval process, it is an illegally marketed drug and is subject to FDA action, including recall. Probiotics not destined for sale as drugs should not have to be researched under a drug rubric. This does NOT mean that such studies will de facto be substandard studies. We all understand the importance of conducting and reporting trials according to well-established guidelines. Studies on foods and supplements can and should follow those same principles.

Claim 4: Possible concerns about probiotic safety

Medical professionals balance potential harm with potential benefit for any intervention they recommend. Regarding safety of probiotics, the authors acknowledge that most probiotics are likely safe, but we would qualify that statement with “for their intended uses.” The use of probiotics in critically ill patient populations needs to be done with caution, proper oversight and a justification that the potential benefit will outweigh risk. The authors cite two examples to support their concern about probiotic safety, both in critically ill patient populations. One was a retrospective study looking at bacteremia in critically ill children (see the report here and responses to the report here and here). The second was a RCT that reported higher mortality in patients with pancreatitis (see the report here, with additional perspectives on interpreting safety outcomes here and here). We are not aware of any probiotics that are marketed for such uses, and if they were, they would be marketed as drugs, requiring drug-level safety and efficacy evidence. These studies are not an indictment of safety of probiotic foods and supplements, which in most cases are intended for the generally healthy population.

The authors further state that studies identifying adverse events from probiotics are the “tip of the iceberg” – creating an image of a huge number of unreported adverse incidents poised to be revealed. We have personally studied the most widely used Bifidobacterium strain, and in well over 30,000 pediatric patient days have not seen any serious adverse events and no more adverse events than placebo. The article cited by the authors states that our trials adequately reported harm. Obviously, no intervention is harmless, and no one claims as much for probiotics. It is true that older probiotic studies can rightly be criticized for not rigorously collecting and reporting data on adverse events (Hempel et al. 2011). However, a reasonable assessment of all available data, including data from well-conducted clinical trials, including trials in vulnerable populations, history of safe use, FDA notified assessments for GRAS use of certain probiotic strains, European Food Safety Authority QPS list, and others support that commonly used probiotics have a strong safety record for use in the general public.

Transferable antibiotic resistance. Regarding the risk that probiotics may transfer antibiotic resistance genes, this is a hypothetical concern – there is no documented case of this. Further, one pillar of probiotic safety assessments is that strains with antibiotic resistance genes flanked by mobile genetic elements are excluded from commercialization. As stated by Ouwehand et al. 2016, “Probiotics are specifically selected to not contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance and not carry transferable antibiotic resistance.” The current approach to probiotic safety is that complete, well annotated genome sequences are available for commercial strains. This information is typically included in GRAS notices submitted to the FDA, and all the major probiotic suppliers require this level of safety assessment. This is the expected standard by the European Food Safety Authority as well, a standard that we enthusiastically and unreservedly endorse. Transferable antibiotic resistance is not a lurking threat of probiotics use, but is a well-considered issue adequately addressed by responsible probiotic manufacturers.

Conclusion

We believe that this JAMA viewpoint misrepresents the totality of data on probiotics and can potentially do harm by dissuading use of probiotics in an evidence-based manner. Important points have been raised by the authors, especially with regard to the use of probiotics in vulnerable populations, but this does not characterize most of probiotic use. We agree, as we expect the majority of scientists working on probiotics would, that additional, well controlled human studies are needed. That was why we were pleased to see the authors’ studies assessing the impact of L. rhamnosus R0011 and L. helveticus R0052 or L. rhamnosus GG on acute pediatric gastroenteritis, even though the results of both studies were null (see blog post regarding these studies here and here). But as we await additional trials, we have a responsibility to consider available evidence. The authors raise many good points that the entire medical field could learn from, but there are clear indications for probiotics and they should continue to be used for these indications, likely benefitting many while harming few.

Acknowledgements

MES and DM are grateful for the critical review of this perspective by probiotic safety expert Dr. James Heimbach, biostatistician Dr. Daniel Tancredi, and gastroenterologist and probiotic expert Dr. Eamonn Quigley.

 

 

 

ISAPP Students and Fellows Association announce blog posting: A new way to share our work and perspectives

By Anna-Ursula Happel, president ISAPP-SFA and postdoctoral fellow at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town, South Africa

Our professors keep telling us to write, write, write. Reports, papers, reviews, presentations. You can’t blame them as that’s what most of them had to do, and in a competitive environment academic output is critical. But while professors urge students to produce academic outputs, there’s a whole world of research ‘impact’ in a digital world that is beginning to matter for career advancement. To further our reach along this axis, we as the ISAPP-Students and Fellows Association (SFA) are launching a blog platform, which will be regularly updated with perspectives from our members and ideas on recent developments in the field of probiotics and prebiotics.

Our very first blog post centered on an innovative project I never thought I would hear about. Through our SFA meeting, I had heard about the Reid lab from Western University in Canada trying to find a way to prevent the decline of honey bee populations. It was a shock, since their focus for years has been women’s health. My first question to one of Dr. Reid’s students, Brendan Daisley, was: How did this come about? It turns out, the interest in how environmental toxins affect humans led to wondering how it helped really important pollinators. Not such a tangential switch as I’d thought. But what’s this got to do with the field of probiotics and my career?

Well, it shows that probiotics, as the definition states, can be applied to many hosts. It also shows that the microbiome plays a role in the health of insects as well as humans. And many of the study tools are the same – microbiota analysis, bioinformatics, immune responses, etc., yet some are totally different – using Drosophila models, counting larvae, measuring honey volumes. Read more about it here. The lesson for me: think laterally, look at how you can apply your knowledge, think of ecosystem health, and learn lots of basic skills.

Then, I thought to myself, how can research provide me with opportunities for developing leadership, initiatives and skills that are valuable for my careers. How can I gain visibility as an early-career researcher, grow my networks, improve my writing and scientific communication skills and find a platform to highlight projects that matter to me? The new blog will be helpful for all of this.

As members of the SFA, we’re very fortunate to have our voices heard; to organize our own annual meeting (well, except for 2020 when the world shut down); to be exposed to amazing scientists and ground breaking ideas – and to communicate our work, ideas and perspectives to a broad audience through our new blog. Beyond formal networking at annual meetings, the SFA blog now offers a way to stay actively connected throughout the entire year on a more informal platform with our peers, may strengthen ties within the community and even lead to collaborations and career opportunities.

See here for the ISAPP-SFA blog — bookmark it or watch for new posts on social media!

Twitter: @ISAPPSFA

 

Growing interest in beneficial microbes and fermented foods in Argentina

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

Awareness of gut microbes, fermented foods and probiotics has been on the rise in Argentina. Nutritionists and influencers, who in recent years have begun promoting a healthier lifestyle, are leveraging their social networks to post how-to instructions for making fermented foods, advice to promote a ‘healthier’ microbiota, and information on the potential role of probiotics and prebiotics in human health. But are these news items and recommendations based on science? Not always! I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to make sure the science is correctly communicated to a broad audience on the microbiome, fermented foods, probiotics and prebiotics.

In Argentina, for the last 50 years, there has been on the air a TV show with a particular format: the hostess, Miss Mirtha Legrand, invites 4-6 people to have lunch every Sunday, talking about politics, economy, popular culture, arts and even science for 3 hours. According to her, this is the longest continuously running TV program in the world. Every Sunday several thousands of people from Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay tune in. In October 2019, I was invited to join the table and to comment about the invisible world inside and around us. We discussed how we can profit from bacteria through fermented foods and probiotics, and how to feed our gut microbes with prebiotics. In fact, in 2019, I gave more than 40 talks on this topic to scientific audiences at conferences, as courses for Ph.D. students, as seminars and as workshops. These efforts are targeted not only to local scientists and students, but also to children in schools, local sport clubs in small towns, gyms and hospitals. The interest in friendly bugs is wide-ranging and varied, and fueled by information from radio and TV programs.

“Having lunch with Mirtha Legrand”, a talk show on television for more than 50 years in Argentina, where the discussion on beneficial microbes was brought to the table by Prof. Gabriel Vinderola (far right). Mirtha Legrand, now 93 years old, is in the center (October 3rd, 2019).

The enthusiasm of the audience was immediately evident. Lots of messages came by email, WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram. People were anxious to know more, inquiring about trustworthy sources to read scientific-based but “easy-to-understand” material, posing specific questions about their gut feelings, where to get these probiotics and prebiotics or how to make fermented foods in a safe manner. Fortunately, the ISAPP infographics on probiotics and prebiotics were already available in Spanish, translated by Miguel Gueimonde (Spain) and me, and these were a welcome resource. Yet people still wanted more information, and asked more and more specific questions.

Spurred by such widespread interest, I contacted a local lawyer-turned-chef, Ana Milena Giacomini, who left behind her professional law career to open a small restaurant with a menu heavily based on fermented foods. She features such delights as home-made yoghurt, chucrut, kimchi, sugary kefir, fermented hummus, sourdough bread, pancakes made out of fermented rice flour, kombucha, kvass and a gasified drink from fermented ginger. With her, we organized 4-hour workshops, which are currently on hold due to COVID-19. These workshops feature Ana preparing some of these fermented foods live, followed by tasting, while I explain the science and microbiology behind them. I share factors related to the identity, safety, stability, and potential health effects of these products. I emphasize the differences between fermented foods and probiotics, while discussing the potential value of incorporating fermented foods, probiotics and prebiotics to the daily diet as a way to promote gut health. I provide more specific information on health effects for which robust meta-analyses are available to support the microbes’ use, such as prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children, treatment of infant colic, prevention of allergies, and downregulation of intestinal inflammation. Other workshops with different chefs from different locations in Argentina are in line for when the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Part of the four-course dinner containing fermented foods prepared by chef Martin Russo. The starter consisted of fermented carrots and hummus, served on sourdough bread (pictured).

These workshops are expected to be attended by 30-35 people each time. Nutritionists are interested in giving sound responses to their clients, who hear about these topics in the media or in social networks. But also, people come who want to learn how to make fermented foods, where to find probiotics and prebiotics, or to gain clear guidance on how to incorporate live bacteria to their diets. Other health professionals (gastroenterologists, pediatricians), educators and even people from the industry also attend.

 

The dessert was ice cream balls covered by the mother of vinegar (transparent circle on the top), rinsed and sweetened.

Most people interested in attending these workshops have narrow experience with fermented foods, only being familiar with such things as yoghurt, cheese, wine or beer. Some of them do not know that these foods are indeed fermented, or do not have a clear idea what fermentation is about. Most of them also have a very limited awareness, or even misinformation, about probiotics and prebiotics. These workshops offer the possibility for the curious to learn and to taste new foods, to get insights on the science behind fermented foods, probiotics and prebiotics, and to learn the differences between them in a science-based manner in an “easy-to-follow language”. These encounters are a great way to expand the interest by the general public on the invisible world inside and around us.

Probiotics in fridge

The FDA’s view on the term probiotics, part 2: Further down the rabbit hole

By James Heimbach, Ph.D., F.A.C.N., JHEIMBACH LLC, Port Royal, VA

A number of weeks ago I wrote on the ISAPP blog about US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declining to file Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) notices that described the subject microorganism as a “probiotic” or “probiotic bacterium” (see The FDA’s view on the term “probiotics”). Now the FDA’s response to such GRAS notices has developed additional ramifications. Let me put them into two categories: Class 1 misdemeanors that will cause FDA to reject the notice, and Class 2 misdemeanors that will probably not prevent filing, but will cause FDA to raise questions. I should note that these thoughts are based on both my own direct experiences and my repeated telephone conference calls with FDA.

Class 1 Misdemeanors

  1. Using the term probiotic in any way in describing or characterizing the subject microorganism or its past, present, or intended use.
  2. Extended discussion of benefits derived from ingestion of the microorganism in animal or human research.
  3. Any mention, however brief, of the potential for the microorganism to be used in dietary supplements.

Class 2 Misdemeanors

  1. Including brief mentions of the microorganism serving as a probiotic. E.g., if you cite a study of the microorganism that you might previously have reported as “a study of the probiotic benefits” of the microorganism, change it to simply “a study of the benefits” of the microorganism. This same caution is advised when reporting opinions from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or other authoritative bodies.
  2. Using the word “dose” in describing intended use. Also see #4 below.
  3. Virtually any use of the term “dietary supplement,” including in reporting past, current, or intended uses of the strain or the species in Europe or elsewhere, by anyone.
  4. Even relatively brief mentions of benefits. The recommended way of handling reporting of human studies of the species or strain is to avoid any narrative at all. Simply summarize the studies in tabular form, listing the citation, study design (RCT, open-label, etc.) and objective, study population (number, sex, age, characterization such as IBS patients, malnourished children, preterm infants), test article (microorganism binomial and strain), dose (but call it “administration level”—“dose” can be seen as indicating a drug or dietary supplement), duration, and safety-related results. Include methods used to ensure that any adverse events or severe adverse events would have been reported—medical examinations, self-report questionnaires, parental questionnaires, biochemical measures, etc.—and at what time points during or after the in-life portion of the research. Avoid ANY discussion of improvements seen in the test group.

Good luck!

A Miracle Treatment! Or Not?

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

Here’s a scenario for a physician: A drug rep walks into your office. She has a new product she wants to talk to you about. You are super excited to talk to her as you have heard all about this product from many other sources. The data that are being reported are amazing. There are hundreds if not many more case reports of it working. People were dying and then totally recovered after being given this product. It has been witnessed and published! The efficacy is well over 90%. You are not sure there is any intervention you have ever heard of that has such amazing efficacy.  She tells you that in some of the cases, the patients were very sick and despite numerous courses of antibiotics they did not improve until this new product was given. You ask for more information as you are starting to think this must be like when doctors first heard of penicillin.

The product can be taken orally but that is not the way it is generally given. She tells you that although there are 2-3 ways to administer, most hospitals are doing it the most expensive way now. (You later learn that the typical– and most expensive – approach to administering the product may not even be the best approach.) But you withhold judgement as this sounds exciting. And remember, you have been hearing all about this from so many different sources.

But as you listen, it gets a little confusing. She tells you that the makeup of the product is different in nearly every application. This makes it exciting to use, as one really never knows what is in it. It is also relatively cheap to obtain, as the patient can have a friend just bring it in for them.

Since you are trained in evidence-based medicine, you ask a few questions. It is exciting there are all sorts of case reports but what about the randomized controlled trials, and what does the FDA say about it? You ask if you can look at the trials—there is no way you can review hundreds of studies now but if she leaves them for you, you will look at them this weekend. But before she leaves you ask a few quick questions. How many of these studies are randomized? She says 10. How many use a placebo? She says 6. You tell her what you really want to do is review all the randomized placebo-controlled blinded studies, if she can just leave those.

Later in the week you go pick up the folder she left and right away are a little surprised at how light it is. It looks like there are only 3 randomized placebo-controlled blinded studies, only two of which are peer-reviewed and published. One was a positive study; overall, 91% of patients in the new drug group achieved clinical cure compared with 63% in the control group. But you realize this is not exactly a placebo-controlled trial. What they did is compare two types of the new application. Furthermore, this study was conducted at two sites and at one of the sites both the new application and the control had nearly identical rates of improvement, both over 90%. Okay so this was not a perfect study, only 46 total participants, but still pretty exciting with over 90% improvement.

The second study had three groups of 83 people. Group A (2 doses of new drug), B (2 doses of placebo) and C (1 dose of new drug and 1 placebo dose). The efficacy for these three groups was 61%, 45%, and 67%, respectively. The primary endpoint was not met (P = .152). Interestingly, Group C, which included one dose of placebo, was superior to all placebo (group B) but Group A, in which the drug was given two times, was not superior to placebo.

The third study, a Phase II trial, appears to not be peer-reviewed or published, but just reported online. However, it does appear this was far from a positive study, with 44% of subjects (26 of 59) who received the new application improving versus 53% of subjects (16 of 30) who received placebo. I have been told that this study will be published soon and that a Phase III study of this intervention was also undertaken.

Well now you are getting a little more confused. You have heard from fellow docs, the lay press, medical literature and the drug rep that this new application was over 90% effective. But it appears in the three reasonably well controlled studies, the ones from which we can really draw conclusions, only one was positive and in that study the control was not a real placebo.

Besides efficacy, you remember that one has to always consider the cost and adverse events. Maybe this new application is like recommending the Mediterranean Diet, where the efficacy from studies is limited but the adverse events are nearly non-existent. But when you do a quick PubMed search you learn that this is far from the case with this product. This application has been reported to cause very serious adverse events, including extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL)–producing Escherichia coli bacteremia resulting in one death. You look online expecting that the FDA must have some serious warnings about this new drug. You don’t find any such warnings.

You may have guessed that the product is in fact a Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT). Besides having a professional interest in this much-discussed treatment, I have a personal interest. Last year my son was in a Johns Hopkins Hospital with a central line and two broad-spectrum antibiotics for a bone infection. I asked them to provide him with probiotics since the number needed to treat to prevent pediatric antibiotic associated diarrhea is 9, per a 2019 Cochrane review. This review included 20 randomized, placebo-controlled studies of a single strain. However, I was told no Hopkins hospital will administer probiotics, and further, that we could not even bring in our own because of concerns for the safety of others. But no worries – if my son got recurrent C. diff infection, Hopkins would allow this great new procedure, FMT.

In medicine I cannot truly imagine a probiotic with the same evidence base as FMT receiving such widespread acceptance and escaping regulatory scrutiny. And currently used probiotics have an excellent safety record. Just imagine, if this were a new drug being sold there would be widespread condemnation of the attempt to get approval mainly based on anecdotal case reports.  Shockingly, based on the level of evidence I have described many experts now think a randomized placebo-controlled trial is not even ethical for the placebo group, as of course they know FMT works.

It is a quandary. I am not opposed to FMT; I find it fascinating. But why has it been so widely accepted and why has the FDA, which in general has been very careful with probiotic applications in medicine, allowed this to proceed for recurrent C diff infection with only enforcement discretion? Both treatments administer live microorganisms, one with 31 placebo controlled randomized trials, including 8672 subjects [of C. diff prevention (number needed to prevent=42), not treatment like FMT], the other with pretty limited data.  I have my thoughts, but better for you to ponder it.

 

 

The past decade of probiotics and prebiotics research: ISAPP board members share their perspectives.

By ISAPP board members, compiled by Kristina Campbell

Scientific progress in the field of probiotics and prebiotics, as in any other field, often seems to occur one tiny step at a time. Yet over the course of several years, these tiny steps can add up to significant progress.

Current members of the ISAPP board of directors hold academic positions across North America, and Europe, representing some of the experts at the forefront of scientific innovation in probiotics and prebiotics. Their collective experience encompasses functional foods, fermentations, microbial ecology, microbial genetics, immunology, and clinical medicine, including pediatrics, family medicine and gastroenterology. As we enter into 2020 and a new decade, these board members have taken a moment to reflect on how far they and their colleagues have come over the past ten years, by answering the question: What changes have occurred in the domains of research, applications, and awareness about probiotics and prebiotics?

ISAPP board members, 2019 annual meeting

Available scientific methods and tools

The change that stood out the most to the ISAPP board members over the past decade was the rapid expansion of available scientific methods and tools – from gene sequencing technology to CRISPR-Cas to bioinformatic approaches. These exciting developments have enabled scientists to obtain more information, and to do it both quickly and economically. In the words of the board members:

“Advances in sequencing technology [have] revolutionized our ability to understand the gene repertoire of each individual probiotic strain (whole genome sequencing) and the interplay with the microbiome (metagenomics). This has been really energizing to the field, but has also meant that competence in bioinformatics has become an essential tool for probiotic and prebiotic scientists.”

“A decade ago, human studies on prebiotics would look at changes in the gut microbiota using fairly laborious procedures. Nowadays, the analysis is much more extensive and straightforward to do, and probably more accurate… The biggest change has been the capability to assess not only composition of the microbiota but also its functionality. So, today, the trials include metabonomics as well as assessments of health effects (through changes in particular symptoms and /or biomarkers such as blood lipids, microbial products, immune and inflammatory status). That way, we get a far better picture of what prebiotics can do.”

“In 2010 we only had DGGE to characterize the genome and were trying to figure out how to implement 16S amplicon sequencing. Now we are implementing shotgun & shallow shotgun sequencing for similar prices. In 2010, we did only work on 3-4 probiotic lactobacilli for molecular research, now we work on 400-500 lactobacilli. We do comparative genomics and functional analyses at much larger scale. And in 2010, we paid almost 10000 euro just to sequence one genome of lactobacilli, with limited analysis, now a few hundred euro for sequencing.”

Probiotics and prebiotics for microbiome modulation

Because of the rapid advancements in scientific tools and techniques during the past decade, as mentioned above, many more research groups are endeavoring to study the microbial communities that relate to probiotics and prebiotics. Gut microbiota are of great interest—not least because, among the strategies for microbiome modulation, probiotics and prebiotics are two of the leading candidates. Moreover, microbiome data can help researchers understand the context of probiotics and prebiotics in the gut and in different environments. In particular, many clinical trials of probiotics and prebiotics now include a microbiota-related measure. Novel species and strains for food use may be identified from gut microbiota studies, although safety and efficacy assessment will form challenges for regulatory bodies. Board members said:

“My collaborators and I initiated our first human clinical trials with prebiotics in 2008 and published several papers in 2010 and 2011. These early papers were among the first in which high throughput 16S DNA sequencing was used to assess how the human gut microbiota was affected by the prebiotic, GOS. Although this is now a routine method in the field, in 2008, having a Roche 454 pyrosequencer in the lab was very special, and we were astounded to be able to identify and measure abundances of the main members of the gut microbiota. Having these large data sets also led us to realize the importance of what was at the time the “new” field of bioinformatics that was critical in analyzing and reporting the data. This research showed that GOS was bifidogenic (with high specificity) in healthy adults, but was also subject-dependent. Thus, the results clearly showed there were prebiotic responders and non-responders. This remains an important area of research for my group.”

“The decade started with general excitement that ‘dysbiosis’ of the gut microbiota is involved in just about every human health problem, and has turned into re-remembering that correlation is not causation and microbiota patterns are often driven more by random factors or factors unrelated to disease than by microbiology.”

“It’s worth noting that in 2020, the well-controlled probiotic studies showing health benefits in humans are still more convincing and valuable than the studies showing any ‘beneficial’ effects on the human microbiota.”

“Over the past decade we have witnessed a tremendous explosion in our understanding of the microbiome and its interactions with us, its host. Progress in translating this knowledge into new treatments has been slower but glimmers of encouragement have appeared and we look forward to the next decade when interventions that modulate the microbiome to benefit our health will be based on a true understanding of how they act and will be selected to the maximal benefit of each individual.”

Probiotic mechanisms of action

Probiotic mechanisms of action are a perennial hot topic within the scientific community—and many had hoped that the new suite of scientific tools at scientists’ disposal would significantly advance this area of research during the past decade. But according to one ISAPP board member:

“In 2010 I would have confidently predicted that by 2020 we would have much more of a mechanistic understanding of probiotic mechanisms [and] the importance of strain effects… But this simply has not happened.  The field has become more biologically and computationally complex and many millions have been spent on research, but I still don’t think we can answer the fundamental question we faced in 2010, and in 2000, and in 1990 – what makes one a strain a probiotic, while another is not?”

But in the views of other board members:

“Through genomic and metabolomic studies we are identifying differences between strains that function at different sites and what properties are important for their probiotic function.”

“Identify[ing] the key effector molecules turned out to be more complex [than] we thought 10 years ago. It has become clear to me that probiotic mechanisms of action are per definition complex and multifactorial, because they are living microbes having thousands of molecules that all play a role. Yet, there is clearly an hierarchy of effector molecules.”

Probiotic and prebiotic applications

In general, microbiome studies of the past decade have led to a better appreciation of the ubiquity and complexity of microbial communities—not just those associated with different human body sites, but also those occupying every possible niche on Earth. ISAPP board members reflect:

“In 2010, I was mainly studying probiotics for the gut and vagina, now we have explored probiotics for the skin, respiratory tract, animals, plants, isolates from fermented vegetables that can boost vegan probiotic formulations etc., and other areas.”

“Two areas of research I am doing I’d never have imagined in 2010 are in honey bees and Chinook salmon and against environmental chemicals, administering probiotics.”

Public awareness of probiotics and prebiotics

Numerous studies and surveys show the general public has more awareness than ever of probiotics – and increasingly, of prebiotics too. Individuals receive their information through many different channels, both digital (e.g. blogs, websites) and non-digital (e.g. magazines, product packaging). The past decade also saw the creation of valuable evidence-based resources, such as the Clinical Guides available in the US and Canada, and resources from World Gastroenterology Organisation and from ESPGHAN (probiotics for pediatric acute gastroenteritispediatric nosocomial diarrheapreterm infants, and pediatric AAD). These resources have been enabled by a critical mass of studies that have examined the efficacy of various probiotic strains for certain indications. One board member says:

“From a clinical perspective, the biggest change for us has been that the general public knows so much about probiotics; now we are doing a lot less educating of docs and patients about the concepts behind our probiotic studies.”

But there’s still work to be done:

“The term probiotic is now widely known, but still too often people are misinterpreting what it means, or generalizing the whole field instead of recognizing strain and product differences. We need to continue to educate and clarify to keep the messaging on track.”

“There is still lack of knowledge that not all probiotics are equal. The clinical effects and safety of any single probiotic or combination of probiotics should not be extrapolated to other probiotics. The same applies to prebiotics.”

“Choosing a probiotic continues to be a major hurdle for the consumer – for every probiotic strain that is well characterized, studied in detail in appropriate disease models, and shown to be effective in clinical trials there are hundreds that would fail to pass even the most basic tests of quality control. We must help the consumer to make informed choices.”

 

It seems that, while the past decade has been a fruitful time for probiotics and prebiotics research and public awareness, scientists still have a lot of work to do. In the 2020s they will use the tools available to them, and continue to develop new ones, to gain more detailed and multi-faceted information about probiotic strains and prebiotic compounds—and about the context in which they operate (for instance, the gut microbiome), to ultimately confer benefits on human health.

Probiotics, Prebiotics and Globobiotics!

By Prof. Colin Hill, PhD, APC Microbiome Ireland, University College Cork, Ireland

Growing up I could not imagine what the world would look like in 2020, but I was convinced it would be amazing. The future was exciting, new planets and solar systems would be explored, diseases would be cured, and everyone would have sufficient food and shelter.  I sometimes think my generation may have been born at the most perfect time in human history (for someone brought up in a first world country at any rate).  We avoided the major world wars which our parents and grandparents endured, we had the benefits of cheap airfares so we could travel the world as tourists, not as armies. Oil was cheap and plentiful. Access to education was widely available. We benefited from antibiotics while they were still effective.  Gender inequalities and racism began to be addressed, even though there is still a long way to go. Computers became commonplace and the internet provided access to almost unlimited sources of information.

But here we are in 2020, and now things do not look so promising. Perhaps cynicism is a natural by-product of getting older, but now the future seems to be presented in apocalyptic terms. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, ageing populations, the paradoxes of increasing obesity and increasing hunger, exploding populations, depletion of natural resources and pollution of our oceans. Watching nature programmes hosted by the incomparable David Attenborough has changed from generating a sense of awe at the wonders of the natural world to a sense of despair as to what we are doing to it. Australia is literally on fire as I write this!  Can our planet survive the onslaught of the projected 10 billion humans by 2050 – each one hungry for a share of finite resources?  Is this really going to be the legacy from my generation to the next – a dystopian future without hope and optimism?

But it’s a New Year and a new decade, and I really want to be hopeful. I am encouraged by the fact that we are gradually beginning to come to grips with this new reality. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a roadmap guiding societies and individuals as to how to make a contribution. Attitudes are changing.  Too slowly for sure, but we do seem to be at a tipping point.

But what has this tirade have to do with prebiotics and probiotics, you may ask? Well, everything of course. One of the things that really gives me hope is our growing understanding of how humans are simply occupying space in a microbial world. If we squander our opportunity and destroy our planet in terms of human habitation, microbes will carry on for billions of years to come. We should remember that we can only live on Earth because all of the oxygen we breathe is the result of billions of years of microbial metabolism, that most of the carbon cycling on earth is due to microbes, and that every natural system on Earth depends on microbes. Of course we are also inhabited by a vast ecosystem of microbes (our microbiomes) that are required for our health and wellbeing, and we live in environments shaped by microbes. Understanding this will help us to live in harmony with our microbial world, rather than constantly forcing our poor planet to deliver our short term needs.

How can microbes help us to achieve sustainability and restore a healthy ecosystem? I believe that there are many opportunities. By 2050 I predict that we will be using microbes to restore productivity to land damaged by excessive use and pollution.  We will be using microbes to clean our oceans of plastic waste. We will improve food production without using chemicals, and we will have certainly reduced food waste (it is estimated that one third of all the food we produce on earth is lost to spoilage, much of it caused by microbes). We will have reduced methane emissions by manipulating the rumen microbiome in domesticated ruminants. We can look forward to a world where we can work with microbes to restore and replenish our atmosphere by unlocking the enormous potential of microbes to scavenge and store carbon. We will have reduced our reliance on antibiotics and will have found microbiome-friendly solutions to prevent and treat infection. We will have developed probiotics and prebiotics that will help us to address metabolic diseases, we will be using bacteriophage to sculpt microbiomes, while psychobiotics will be helping to prevent age related loss of brain function.

Given that the world is a microbial ecosystem, I propose that in the same way we can treat our human ecosystems with prebiotics and probiotics to improve or restore health, we can think in terms of developing microbial solutions to improve or restore planetary health. Because we haven’t had one in at least a month, I propose yet another new term; globobiotics. Globobiotics would be defined as “live microorganisms, microbial products or substrates selectively utilized by microorganisms, that are used in a manner that contributes to the sustainability of our planet”.

We’ve had the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Oil Age, the Atomic Age and the Information Age, welcome to the Microbial Age!

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

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

 

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

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

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

Seppo Salminen at ISAPP annual meeting 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misleading press about probiotics: ISAPP responses

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

It seems over the last couple of years, open season on “probiotics” has been declared. Responding in a scientifically accurate fashion to misleading coverage, whether it is in reputable scientific journals or in the lay media, takes time and care.

I want to be clear: well-conducted clinical trials, regardless of the outcomes, are welcome contributions to the body of evidence. No one expects that every probiotic will work for every indication. Null trials document this – they tell researchers to look elsewhere for solutions. Further, we must acknowledge the limitations and weaknesses of available evidence; unfortunately, not all trials are well-conducted. We also need to be just as diligent in criticizing press that is overly positive about probiotic benefits, which are not backed by evidence.

However, articles with misleading information are all-too-frequently published. Below are ISAPP responses to some of these stories.

  1. A paper on rhamnosus GG bacteremia in ICU patients led to headlines about ‘deadly infections’ and probiotic administration ‘backfiring’, even though no patients died and clinical outcomes were not collected. ISAPP responded to clarify appropriate context for understanding the safety issues raised from this paper. See Lactobacillus bacteremia in critically ill patients does not raise questions about safety for general consumers.
  2. The Wall Street Journal published an article condemning probiotics for reducing fecal microbial diversity. ISAPP responded with a blog Those probiotics may actually be helping, not hurting, pointing out the errors in the author’s thinking (equating diversity with gut health).
  3. A pair of well-conducted clinical trials that did not show impact of probiotics on pediatric acute diarrhea led to some ignoring all previous evidence and concluding that no probiotics were useful for acute pediatric diarrhea. ISAPP responded about the importance of putting new evidence in the context of the totality of evidence: L. rhamnosus GG for treatment of acute pediatric diarrhea: the totality of current evidence. Also, Dr. Eamonn Quigley, an ISAPP board member, published an independent response.
  4. Pieter Cohen concluded that evidence for probiotic safety is insufficient in an article in JAMA Internal Medicine. ISAPP’s response was published in a letter to the editor, along with Cohen’s response to our letter.
  5. Responding to two papers in Cell (here and here), and accompanying media coverage that called into question probiotic safety and efficacy, ISAPP published a detailed post Clinical evidence and not microbiota outcomes drive value of probiotics objecting to conclusions, and released a public statement.
  6. Jennifer Abbasi wrote a critical article about probiotics with the inflammatory title “Are Probiotics Money Down the Toilet? Or Worse?” ISAPP responded with the following blog post: Probiotics: Money Well-Spent For Some Indications.
  7. When Rao, et al incriminated probiotics as a cause of D-lactic acidosis, ISAPP posted a blog and published a letter to the editor of Clin Transl Gastroenterol objecting to this conclusion.
  8. ISAPP responded to a paper claiming that probiotics were unsafe in children: Probiotics and D-lactic acid acidosis in children and Brain Fogginess and D-Lactic Acidosis: Probiotics Are Not the Cause.

Board member and Professor Colin Hill wrote a blog post called Another day, another negative headline about probiotics? His post provides some useful questions to consider when reacting to a publication:

  • Is the article describing an original piece of research and was it published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal?
  • What evidence is there that the strain or strain mix in question is actually a probiotic? Does it fit the very clear probiotic definition?
  • Was the study a registered human trial? How many subjects were involved? Was it blinded and conducted to a high standard?
  • What evidence was presented of the dose administered and was the strain still viable at the time of administration?
  • Were the end points of the study clear and measurable? Are they biologically or clinically significant to the subjects?
  • Did the authors actually use the words contained in the headline? “Useless”, or “waste of money”, etc?

 

ISAPP helps inform UK Parliament

By Prof. Glenn Gibson, University of Reading, UK

An All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was inaugurated in February 2019 in the UK. Its purpose is: “to highlight the role of the gut microbiome in physical and mental health and its capacity to prevent many disorders and improve or slow others; to inform debate about how this will save money for the Treasury and NHS; and to enable communications between interested parties and relevant parliamentarians.” At this stage, over 80 MPs and Peers are currently involved, with Julie Elliott MP as chair.

iStock photo. Credit: Vladislav Zolotovby. Houses of Parliament and Big Ben at sunset, London, UK.

The APPG meetings (6 per year) provide opportunities to share information based on sound science and reality, not hype, so that parliamentarians can take appropriate action when opportunities arise. Specific experts are invited to give the evidence, and the topics discussed so far include:

  • overview of gut microbiology and health
  • potential savings for the NHS/treasury if evidenced probiotics and prebiotics were to be applied to specific clinical states
  • management of gut health in elite athletes
  • benefits of pro- and prebiotics for the wider community

Alan Barnard presents about the APPG at the 2019 ISAPP annual meeting.

Scientific advisors for the APPG are ISAPP board of directors member Dr. Glenn Gibson, Dr. Kirsty Hunter (Nottingham Trent University), and Dr. Gemma Walton (University of Reading).  The secretariat is Alan Barnard. Kirsty and Alan attended the ISAPP 2019 annual meeting in Antwerp to give an overview of the aspirations and format of the APPG. The advisors use ISAPP science to drive the communications, including the organization’s review articles, consensus statements, infographics, videos, and selected working group summaries from the annual meetings. ISAPP anticipates further involvement with the APPG, including a future meeting featuring Gregor Reid’s outstanding probiotic research in the developing world.

 

Harmonized Probiotic Guidelines to be discussed at Codex Alimentarius meeting November 24 – 29

By Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, Executive Science Officer, ISAPP

In 2017, the International Probiotics Association (IPA) proposed that Codex Alimentarius consider the topic of global harmonization of probiotics, and Argentina offered to propose an approach. The final proposal developed by Argentina is here.

This set into motion activities among many stakeholders that led to a final proposal, to be discussed at the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods For Special Dietary Uses, Forty-first Session, Dusseldorf, Germany, being held 24 – 29 November 2019. The agenda for this meeting includes “Harmonized Probiotic Guidelines for Use in Foods and Dietary Supplements”, agenda item #11.

ISAPP has long championed the need for the term ‘probiotic’ to be used on product labels only when the scientifically recognized definition is met. In June 2018, ISAPP convened a large group of industry and academic scientists, chaired by Profs. Seppo Salminen (Finland), Yuan Kun Lee (Singapore), and Gabriel Vinderola (Argentina), to discuss global harmonization. Prof. Vinderola later served as a member of the Argentinian committee that developed the proposal now under consideration. From this discussion group, a white paper “ISAPP position statement on minimum criteria for harmonizing global regulatory approaches for probiotics in foods and supplements” was prepared, describing the minimum criteria for use of the term ‘probiotic’. These outputs frame an overall position of ISAPP on this issue: any global regulations should impose only the minimum criteria necessary to ensure truthful product labeling.

Issues such as requiring specific safety tests, stipulating specific in vitro or animal studies, or expecting manufacturers to automatically re-conduct clinical trials when changing delivery matrices, will serve to inhibit innovation and impose expensive requirements that may not be necessary.

Although probiotics can be considered unique in that they are live microorganisms, their use as dietary ingredients is not substantively different from other ingredients. Every ingredient needs specific analytical techniques and has specific requirements for identity, purity, and stability. So if truth in labeling can be assured regarding proper commercial use of the term ‘probiotic’, there may not be a need for carved-out global regulations on probiotics.

The position of the United States on this agenda item is: “The United States is still reviewing the discussion paper and has not formed a position at this time. We note however that in our view this work is lower in priority than proposed work on nutrient profiles.”

Lactobacillus bacteremia in critically ill patients does not raise questions about safety for general consumers

By Dan Merenstein MD, Professor of Family Medicine, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington DC, USA; Eamonn Quigley MD, Professor of Medicine, Houston Methodist Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas USA; Gregory Gloor PhD, Professor of Biochemistry, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, The University of Western Ontario, Canada; Hania Szajewska MD, Professor of Paediatrics, The Medical University of Warsaw, Poland;  and Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, Executive Science Officer, ISAPP, Colorado, USA.

A recent Nature Medicine paper reported blood cultures positive for L. rhamnosus GG in six critically ill patients at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

About this study

Patients (aged 1, 2, 4, 12, 19 and 19 years) with L. rhamnosus-associated bacteremia suffered from different chronic conditions (mitochondrial disorder, cerebral palsy, congenital heart disease, cystic fibrosis) and were located either in the ICU (cardiac or medical/surgical ICU) or ICP (intermediate care program) at the hospital at the time of bacteremia. The bacteremia was discovered during routine blood culture screens. Clinical presentations were not described in detail; however, none had endocarditis or died from the bacteremia, although one did get a central line infection. Two of the six cases of bacteremia in probiotic-consuming patients were determined by attending physicians to be transient or due to contaminants, and were not treated. The other four cases were treated with antibiotics. A further 516 patients dosed with the same probiotic did not develop bacteremia.

The researchers examined the blood isolates and using whole genome sequencing were able to confirm that the Lactobacillus isolated from the blood of these patients was genetically identical – with the exception of a few SNPs – to L. rhamnosus GG present in the probiotic product. This is the preferred approach to confirming the source of blood culture isolates.

Important questions arising from critical review of this paper

  1. Was the study appropriately controlled?

The authors report a seemingly high rate (1.1%) of Lactobacillus bacteremia among the 522 L. rhamnosus-consuming patients compared with 0.009%, the rate of Lactobacillus bacteremia among 21,652 patients who did not receive probiotics.  However, the paper does not justify the legitimacy of comparing these two groups to each other. Indeed, other underlying factors could contribute to the different rates of bacteremia, as these were not matched cohorts. It is important to recognize the limitations of the retrospective design used here, which limits the ability to match controls, and to control for cofounders such as underlying illness, severity of clinical illness and co-therapies (including antibiotics).

  1. What is the mechanism of transmission of the probiotic to the patients’ blood?

Most of the patients had a central line venous catheter. The paper reported that probiotics were mostly administered via tube feeding. If a probiotic is able to readily translocate the gut barrier in such patients, this would be a safety concern. But if the observed bacteremia was due to contamination of a central line, this may say more about hospital procedures than safety of the probiotic. Indeed, 16 years ago, central line contamination leading to fungemia was reported. In a 2005 paper, 92% of cases of fungemia associated with Saccharomyces cerevisiae var boulardii administration had an IV catheter. Based on such reports, handling dried probiotics in a hospital environment with critically ill patients should be done with caution. However, with proper administration procedures, certain probiotics are medically recommended in this setting.

  1. What was the clinical impact of administration of L. rhamnosus GG?

Important clinical parameters such as all-cause mortality (the outcome of greatest importance), length of hospital stay, abscesses, required medications, and others were not reported (although central line infection was reported) for the patients studied. The clinical context of this study would be more easily understood if information on the indications driving probiotic administration was provided. The authors question the risk/benefit of probiotic administration to ICU patients in a children’s hospital yet focus solely on risk and do not measure benefit. This suggests an underlying assumption by the authors that when it comes to probiotics, any risk is too much. Did the patients given L. rhamnosus GG suffer negative clinical outcomes more often than age and condition-matched controls? If so, then giving this probiotic to these patients cannot be recommended. But if not, then even though risk of bacteremia may be higher, if the patients given the probiotic fared better than matched patients, then the probiotic should be considered a reasonable option.

Lastly, the finding of a rate of Lactobacillus bacteremia of 1.1% needs to be viewed in the context of a 20% rate of nosocomial infections in the ICU (here and here).

Lessons regarding probiotic safety

Two main issues are raised by this study. The first is whether the evidence suggests opportunistic pathogenic properties of L. rhamnosus GG or rather that procedures used to administer probiotics in the ICU environment resulted in contamination, which caused bacteremia. No conclusions can be made from this study regarding this. The second is the importance of placing the results of this study into a clinical framework. The study implies risk from probiotic administration, even though the study was not powered for clinical outcomes and could not place any perceived increased risk into the context of any achieved benefit. Further, reporting rates of Lactobacillus bacteremia between cohorts unmatched for important characteristics except for probiotic use does not inform on relative risk.

Importantly for the broader situation of probiotic use, the ICU population is not reflective of the general population, so this study does not allow us to draw conclusions about safety of L. rhamnosus GG use in non-ICU patients.

We recognize the value of careful tracking of potential probiotic-associated infections and appreciate the application of bacterial genomic sequencing to identify the probiotic in the blood. Used more widely, this approach could resolve many purported claims of probiotic bacteremia.

This paper serves as an important reminder that use of probiotics in critically ill patients must be carefully considered and practice must align with learnings from the past, including the risk of central line contamination with probiotics. In addition, this paper highlights the importance of knowing the exact strain (including its antibiotic resistance profile and preferentially also its genome sequence), so that in the rare case of bacteremia, appropriate antibiotics can be administered.

See related article: Hill, C. Balancing the risks and rewards of live biotherapeuticsNat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol (2019)

See here for an additional related open-access publication: Probiotic use in at-risk populations. Sanders et al. 2014.

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a career in probiotic science, from ISAPP founding board member Prof. Gregor Reid

Past President and founding board member Prof. Gregor Reid is stepping down from the ISAPP Board in Banff in June 2020, as he retires from Western University and his Endowed Chair position at Lawson Health Research Institute the following month. In this blog post, he shares thoughts on his career and the opportunities for his replacement and for others to continue probiotic research. See here for information on the position of Research Chair in Human Microbiome and Probiotics at the Lawson Health Research Institute.

By Gregor Reid BSc (Hons), PhD, MBA, ARM CCM, Dr HS, FCAHS, FRSC

A mere blue dot. A pinhead, if that. But it’s us, all we have been and all we will be – for a while at least. The planet Earth.

Its magnificence is there for all to see.

Creative Commons Earth Illustration, Pixabay

Creative Commons Earth Illustration, by Pixabay

I’ve been fortunate to have visited over 60 of the countries on this majestic globe. One of the perks of being a scientist. And for those who know me well, I’ve taken my camera and my music with me on the journey. In this blog post, I’ll share some pieces of both and how they form part of who we are and what we study.

Across the vast surface of our planet, and within it, there are countless microbes. As life emerges from the surface, we shouldn’t be surprised that microbes climb on board. Whether plants, honey bees, fish, birds, lions, humans, microbes accompany each.

Photo by Andrew Pitek. Used with permission.

Just being human is a guest house1.

Understandably, since some of these microbes can be deadly to humans, our ancestors had to find ways to stop them. Whether plague, diphtheria, smallpox, influenza, wound infections, or other fatal diseases. And so, the marvels of vaccination and antibiotics were born.

Arguably, these miraculous interventions also brought complacency as a societal side-effect, despite the warnings of people like Alexander Fleming. The greatest possibility of evil in self-medication is the use of too small doses so that instead of clearing up infection the microbes are educated to resist penicillin2.

We all but ignored the collateral damage, pacified by label warnings of diarrhea and nausea until Clostridium difficile woke us from our slumber. When the antibiotics stopped working, we went out into left field and started using human poop! Too ridiculous to work, until it worked. Really well.

We’re running through the dark, and that’s how it starts. Don’t know what you’re doing to me. And it might be getting better3.

Prior to that radical step, an awakening had occurred through people like Metchnikoff but more recently Savage, Tannock, McKay, Costerton, Bruce, and others who led us to the microbes that have been helping us all along. In the case of Andrew Bruce, he wondered if replenishment of lactobacilli into the urogenital tract of women might help prevent recurrence of infection. But in the late seventies and early eighties, the collective ‘we’ wasn’t ready to listen.

You came like a comet, blazing your trail. Too high, too far, too soon, you saw the whole of the moon4.

In 2001 in the city of Cordoba, Argentina, a group of experts were assembled and asked to come up with a definition for probiotics5. This helped set a path that we remain on today.

But a definition is nothing without application and acceptance and stewardship. It requires passage to voices across the world. That is why the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) has been a mountain overseeing the field. Led so wonderfully by Mary Ellen Sanders, Glenn Gibson and other outstanding scientists, it is symbolic of the climb many have had to make.

If you understand or if you don’t. If you believe, or if you doubt. There’s a universal justice, and the eyes of truth are always watching you6.

There’s always gonna be another mountain. I’m always gonna wanna make it move. Always gonna be an uphill battle. Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose. Ain’t about how fast I get there, ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb7.

It has certainly been a climb. For each of us. Cynicism too often outweighing optimism. Hype outweighing truth. Profit ahead of science. Ignorance over understanding. But together, we have reiterated the message, the importance of studies and data. Not in experimental mice or test tubes, but in the ultimate host where benefits are sought.

The road has taught me to fight our corner, but also that there is a magnificence and mystery in this planet we share. From the birth of a baby to the honey bee that pollinates our crops, to the salmon that crosses from salt to fresh water and back. All from the Mother we share8.

I’ve been fortunate that my career has allowed me to pursue my dream, although it’s never quite as it seems9. One song sums it up for me: While I’m alive I’ll make tiny changes to earth10.

I hope that I have made some tiny changes, especially in the poorest regions of Africa where the probiotic fermented foods of Western Heads East and Yoba-for-life are impacting lives of the young and old. Such inspiring people!

I think if each person is able to make tiny changes, we can leave this life better than whence we came.

As retirement looms, it’s funny how the same question is asked repeatedly. “So, what will you do now?” My answer is I’m moving to America. It’s an empty threat11. Actually, I think back to second year of my honours’ degree at Glasgow University and second year of my PhD at Massey University when my answer was “I don’t know for sure, but I’ll do my best.” I think we need to follow the voice inside us and hope that tomorrow brings wellness and satisfaction.

I won’t fill my walls with framed degrees or awards. Those are for photo albums of a blessed past. They were made possible because of hard work, an incredible family, and a set of friends and talented colleagues too numerous to name.

I’m proud of my publications and students, and hope they inspire others. But I only have two hands12, and we need the Big Ideas for you and me13. So, the laboratory, supplies, offices, and amazing staff and students at the St. Joseph’s Hospital site in London, Ontario await a new direction and someone to carry the fire14. For whoever is my successor, I will wish that tomorrow brings another day, another ray of hope15 and that he or she remembers you only get what you give16, and you only get one shot, do not miss your chance17.

Scientific endeavour, an open mind, supportive colleagues, and taking chances all make for an exciting career. I followed a path barely walked. It ostracized me from many in mainstream microbiology. When grant panel reviewers don’t believe your work has value or is needed, life gets challenging. So, you follow your heart, you lean on those who agree with you, and publish on peripheral topics to stay noticed. Then you smile when your critics actually start studying beneficial microbes and probiotics, and understand what you’ve been saying all along.

Probiotics are more than science. They encompass a philosophy, an anthropological perspective, a bridge between past and future. They are a mountain range of possibilities. As researchers we are still people. We should never shut out the disciplines and sounds and voices that surround us. We need to awaken them like adding medium to a dried Lactobacillus and watching it grow.

The possibilities are just as endless as when I started. But they need younger hands with the latest and future technical skill-sets to pursue the big ideas and to be a steward in defending probiotic science and excellence. These are indeed exciting times.

In closing, I hope you enjoy the music selection — and the irony of some of the album names.

As for me heading into the sunset of this journey: Let the music play. I just wanna dance the night away18.

References (unlike any you’ve seen before)

  1. Coldplay. 2017. Kaleidoscope, from A Head Full of Dreams.
  2. Alexander Fleming. 1945. In, The New York Times.
  3. British Sea Power. 2017. What You’re Doing, from Let the Dancers Inherit the Party.
  4. The Waterboys. 1985. The Whole Of The Moon, from This is the Sea.
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization. 2001. Probiotics in Food. http://www.fao.org/3/a-a0512e.pdf
  6. Enigma. 1993. The Cross Of Changes from album of the same name.
  7. Miley Cyrus. 2009. The Climb, from Hannah Montana: The Movie.
  8. Chvrches. 2013. The Mother We Share, from The Bones of What You Believe.
  9. The Cranberries. 1992. Dreams, from Everybody Else is Doing It.
  10. Frightened Rabbit. 2008. Head Rolls Off, from Midnight Organ Fight.
  11. Kathleen Edwards. 2012. Empty Threat, from Voyageur.
  12. Avicii. 2013. Wake Me Up, from True.
  13. The Boxer Rebellion. 2016. Big Ideas, from Ocean by Ocean.
  14. Editors. 2010. No Sound But The Wind, from the Twilight Saga: New Moon.
  15. Bill Nelson. 1983. Another Day, Another Ray of Hope, from Chimera.
  16. New Radicals. 1998. You Get What You Give, from Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too.
  17. Eminem. 2002. Lose Yourself, from the movie 8 Mile.
  18. Barry White. 1975. Let The Music Play, from the album of the same name.

See here for information on the position of Director of Human Microbiome and Probiotics at the Lawson Health Research Institute.

Those probiotics may actually be helping, not hurting

By Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, Executive Science Officer, ISAPP, and Gregory B. Gloor PhD, Department of Biochemistry, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, The University of Western Ontario, London

 

A recent Wall Street Journal essay posits that probiotics are harmful, but does so by misrepresenting probiotic and microbiome science in some important ways.

The focus of this essay was an anecdotal report showing that consuming probiotic products (the composition of which was not disclosed), as well as making other dietary modifications, was associated with lower fecal microbiota diversity. This equates, in the author’s mind, to an “unhealthier gut” and leads to the sensational article title “Those Probiotics May Actually Be Hurting Your ‘Gut Health’”.

How important is fecal microbiota diversity to gut health? There is no evidence in humans that increased gut microbiota diversity is causally linked to any better health outcome. In hunter-gatherer populations, the diversity of the gut microbiome cycles seasonally with diet, yet both the low and high diversity microbiomes are presumably equally ‘healthy’. Many different gut diseases are associated with microbiota compositions that differ from those from healthy subjects. But importantly, we don’t know if the different microbiota is the cause of or the result of the disease. So contrary to the author’s assertion, to speak of gut health is not to speak “really…about the gut microbiome”. Scientists don’t even know what a “healthy microbiome” looks like (see review here).

Perhaps more importantly, it is not at all surprising that consuming high numbers of a few probiotics would result in lower fecal microbial diversity. Probiotics typically survive intestinal transit and are observed in fecal samples when the microbiota is measured. A quirk of measuring the microbiome is that it is typically measured as relative abundance, and the thing about relative abundance is that as the number of one microbe goes up, others appear to decline. They don’t decline in absolute number, but their percentage of the total measured is reduced and hence our ability to detect them is also reduced. So, when you add probiotic microbes to your gut microbiota, and then measure the species present, the probiotic organisms appear at the expense of others. As illustrated in the figure, the probiotic species will appear to displace many rare species because the probiotic species comprise a high percentage of the total population. Although the other resident bacteria are all still there, they are more difficult to detect because they are now below the detection limit after probiotics were added to the community.

 

We are not aware of any evidence that probiotics will increase the diversity of fecal microbiota. In fact, based on the rationale above, we expect that probiotics may appear to decrease fecal microbiota diversity. Does that mean probiotics are harmful? No.

The author glosses over another weakness in his anecdotal report. He treats his fecal microbiota as if it is equivalent to his gut microbiota. Fecal samples represent a terminal microbial community with diminishing nutrients and many dead, but measurable, bacteria. This community is much different from what occurs farther upstream in the colon, and likely has little in common with small intestinal microbial communities. Granted, this is a weakness of much research on the gut microbiome, but discerning scientific reporting should call this what it is: fecal microbiota, not gut microbiome.

Are probiotics actually good for us? To answer this question, consult the literature that evaluates specific probiotics for the health outcome that interests you. Some good evidence exists for several clinical endpoints including antibiotic-associated diarrhea, reduced risk of C. difficile, treatment of colic in infants, reduced incidence in upper respiratory tract infections, and others (see review here).

We agree with one conclusion of the essay, that eating a diverse, whole-food, high-fiber diet likely promotes gut health. But there is nothing new about this recommendation and it seems hardly worth column space in the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

Researchers submit recommendations for revised Lactobacillus taxonomy

By Mary Ellen Sanders PhD, Executive Science Officer, ISAPP

A team of researchers has submitted their recommendations for new classification for the heterogeneous group of species currently considered to belong to the genus Lactobacillus. The paper is under review by the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, the premier journal for bacterial taxonomy.

Three research teams that were independently working on comparative genomics and taxonomic inconsistencies among lactobacilli (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) came together to openly collaborate on this publication. These teams included scientists from Italy, Canada, Belgium, Germany, China, Ireland, and Japan.

Several species important from a commercial perspective will be impacted, including Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus sakei, Lactobacillus salivarius, Lactobacillus reuteri and Lactobacillus brevis. New genus names are expected for these. Lactobacillus delbrueckii, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillus johnsonii, Lactobacillus helveticus and Pediococcus are not expected to undergo name changes. Since L. delbrueckii (which includes the subspecies L. delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus, the yogurt starter culture) was the first Lactobacillus named, convention in naming bacterial genera requires that species from this taxonomic clade will keep the Lactobacillus name.

Driving this effort is the pressing need to apply modern phylogenetic methods to establishing relationships among the many species of Lactobacillus (see previous post). The genus Lactobacillus currently comprises more than 240 species, and has been growing rapidly for decades. In 1980, 36 Lactobacillus species were recognized. By 2012, there were 152. Scientists recognized the need to reorganize the phylogenetic assignments of this genus; they are proposing splitting the Lactobacillus genus into more than 20 genera.

Once the paper is published, the task of disseminating the message about new genus names for commercially important species will begin.

See here for a detailed article on this topic.

Is probiotic colonization essential?

By Prof. Maria Marco, PhD, Department of Food Science & Technology, University of California, Davis

It is increasingly appreciated by consumers, physicians, and researchers alike that the human digestive tract is colonized by trillions of bacteria and many of those bacterial colonists have important roles in promoting human health. Because of this association between the gut microbiota and health, it seems appropriate to suggest that probiotics consumed in foods, beverages, or dietary supplements should also colonize the human digestive tract. But do probiotics really colonize? What is meant by the term “colonization” in the first place? If probiotics don’t colonize, does that mean that they are ineffective? In that case, should we be searching for new probiotic strains that have colonization potential?

My answer to the first question is no – probiotics generally do not colonize the digestive tract or other sites on the human body. Before leaping to conclusions on what this means for probiotic efficacy, “colonization” as defined here means the permanent, or at least long-term (weeks, months, or years) establishment at a specific body site. Colonization can also result in engraftment with consequential changes to the gut microbiota composition and function. For colonization to occur, the probiotic should multiply and form a stably replicating population. This outcome is distinct from a more transient, short-term (a few days to a week or so) persistence of a probiotic. For transient probiotics, it has been shown in numerous ways that they are metabolically active in the intestine and might even grow and divide. However, they are not expected to replicate to high numbers or displace members of the native gut microbiota.

Although some studies have shown that digestive tracts of infants can be colonized by probiotics (weeks to months), the intestinal persistence times of probiotic strains in children and adults is generally much shorter, lasting only few days. This difference is likely due to the resident gut microbiota that develops during infancy and tends to remain relatively stable throughout adulthood. Even with perturbations caused by antibiotics or foodborne illness, the gut microbiome tends to be resilient to the long-term establishment of exogenous bacterial strains. In instances where probiotic colonization or long-term persistence was found, colonization potential has been attributed more permissive gut microbiomes specific to certain individuals. In either case, for colonization to occur, any introduced probiotic has to overcome the significant ecological constraints inherent to existing, stable ecosystems.

Photo by http://benvandenbroecke.be/ Copyright, ISAPP 2019.

This leads to the next question: Can probiotics confer health benefits even if they do not colonize? My answer is definitely yes! Human studies on probiotics with positive outcomes have not relied on intestinal colonization by those microbes to cause an effect. Instead of colonizing, probiotics can alter the digestive tract in other ways such as by producing metabolites that modulate the activity of the gut microbiota or stimulate the intestinal epithelium directly. These effects could happen even on short-time scales, ranging from minutes to hours.

Should we be searching for new probiotic strains that have greater colonization potential? By extension of what we know about the resident human gut microbiota, it is increasingly attractive to identify bacteria that colonize the human digestive tract in the same way. In some situations, colonization might be preferred or even essential to impacting health, such as by engrafting a microbe that performs critical metabolic functions in the gut (e.g. break down complex carbohydrates). However, colonization also comes with risks of unintended consequences and the loss of ability to control the dose, frequency, and duration of exposure to that particular microbe.

Just as most pharmaceutical drugs have a transient impact on the human body, why should we expect more from probiotics? Many medications need to be taken life-long in order manage chronic conditions. Single or even repeated doses of any medication are similarly not expected to cure disease. Therefore, we should not assume a priori that any observed variations in probiotic efficacy are due to a lack of colonization. To the contrary, the consumption of probiotics could be sufficient for a ripple effect in the intestine, subtly altering the responses of the gut microbiome and intestinal epithelium in ways that are amplified throughout the body. Instead of aiming for engraftment directly or hand-wringing due to a lack of colonization, understanding the precise molecular interactions and cause/effect consequences of probiotic introduction will lead to a path that ultimately determines whether colonization is needed or just a distraction.

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ISAPP launches new website, furthering its mission of educating stakeholders on probiotic and prebiotic science

The ISAPP Board of Directors is pleased to announce the launch of the organization’s new website, which has now gone live at ISAPPscience.org. The website has been redesigned for easier navigation by different stakeholder groups—scientists, consumers, clinicians, and students—enabling ISAPP to continue with its mission of providing accurate, science-based information to its readers about probiotics, prebiotics and fermented foods.

ISAPP Executive Science Officer Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders says, “The scientists comprising the ISAPP Board of Directors realize that consumers and clinicians often struggle to find science-based information on probiotics and prebiotics. ISAPP is working to fill this gap, and we have streamlined our website to help individuals from each of these groups easily find the information they’re looking for.”

At the ISAPP annual meeting held earlier this year, advancing probiotic and prebiotic evidence to a variety of audiences was the topic of a special ‘springboard discussion’ session.

“Probiotic and prebiotic science has made significant progress in the past few decades,” says Sanders, “but this progress has not always been communicated effectively or correctly to those outside the scientific community.” Sanders continues, “Some studies describe an expanding array of health benefits but other studies show the limits of these interventions. Our goal is to counter the abundance of misinformation and be the go-to source of accurate materials about probiotics and prebiotics.”

ISAPP is building its capacity to produce more science-focused educational materials tailored to different audiences. Infographics, some of which are translated into 10 different languages, short videos and targeted blogs are featured on the new website. In coming weeks, ISAPP will make additional resources available on the website, including frequently asked questions about probiotics and prebiotics, and a downloadable white paper for clinicians. Signing up for the ISAPP newsletter is the best way to stay up to date on educational materials being added to the website.