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

By Kristina Campbell, science and medical writer

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

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

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

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

A timely discussion

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

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

Clarifying the concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ISAPP’s 2019 annual meeting in Antwerp, Belgium: Directions in probiotic & prebiotic innovation

Kristina Campbell, Microbiome science writer, Victoria, British Columbia

We live in a time when a simple Google search for ‘probiotics’ produces over 56.8 million hits; a time when almost everyone has heard of probiotics through one channel or another, and when an ever-increasing variety of probiotic and prebiotic products is available in different regions of the world.

The next five to ten years will be telling: will probiotics and prebiotics join the ranks of other trendy health products that experienced a wave of popularity before something else took their place? Or will they be recognized as important contributors to health through the lifespan, and establish a permanent position in the clinical armamentarium?

According to the global group of 175 academic and industry scientists who met for the ISAPP annual meeting in Antwerp (Belgium) May 14-16, 2019, one thing above all is necessary for the world to recognize the significance of probiotics and prebiotics for health: scientific innovation. Not only are technological capabilities advancing quickly, but also, new products are being evaluated by better-educated consumers who demand more transparency about the health benefits of their probiotics and prebiotics.

Participants in the ISAPP conference came together to talk about some of the leading innovations in the world of probiotics and prebiotics. Here are three of the broad themes that emerged:

Better health through the gut-brain axis

Gut-brain axis research is rapidly growing, with many investigators in search of probiotic and prebiotic substances capable of modulating brain function in meaningful ways. Phil Burnett of Oxford (UK) presented on “Prebiotics, brain function and stress: To what extent will prebiotics replace or complement drug therapy for mental health?”. Burnett approached the challenge by administering prebiotics to healthy adults and giving them a battery of psychological tests; in one experiment he found people who consumed a prebiotic (versus placebo) showed benefits that included reduced salivary cortisol and positively altered emotional bias. For those with diagnosed brain disorders, Burnett concludes from the available data that prebiotics have potential anxiolytic and pro-cognitive effects in these populations, and that prebiotics may eventually be used to complement the established treatments for some mental disorders.

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are of interest as potential modulators of brain function, but so far very little research has been carried out in this area. Kristin Verbeke of Leuven (Belgium) gave a talk entitled “Short-chain fatty acids as mediators of human health”, which covered the extent to which interventions with fermentable carbohydrates can alter systemic SCFA concentrations (rather than gut SCFA concentrations)—since the former are more relevant to effects on the brain.

Also, a students and fellows feature talk by Caitlin Cowan of Cork (Ireland) explored a role for the microbiota in psychological effects of early stress. She spoke on the topic “A probiotic formulation reverses the effects of maternal separation on neural circuits underpinning fear expression and extinction in infant rats”.

A clear definition of synbiotics

Immediately before the main ISAPP meeting, a group of experts met to propose a consensus definition of ‘synbiotic’, with the objective of clarifying for stakeholders a scientifically valid approach for the use of the increasingly-popular term. A key point of discussion was whether the probiotic and prebiotic substances that make up a synbiotic are complementary or synergistic. And if the two substances have already been tested separately, must they be tested in combination to give evidence of their health effect? The group’s conclusions, which will undoubtedly steer the direction of future R&D programs, will be published in a forthcoming article in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

Probiotics and prebiotics for pediatric populations

Probiotics and prebiotics have been studied for their health benefits in pediatric populations for many years, but in this area scientists appear to have a renewed interest in exploring new solutions. Maria Carmen Collado of Valencia (Spain) covered “Probiotic use at conception and during gestation”, explaining some of the most promising directions for improving infant health through maternal consumption of probiotics.

In recent years, technical advancements have made possible the large-scale production of some human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs); it is now an option to administer them to infants. Evelyn Jantscher-Krenn of Graz (Austria) presented a novel perspective on HMOs, with “HMOs in pregnancy: Roles for maternal and infant health”, giving a broad overview of the many ways in which HMOs might signal health status and how they might be fine-tuned throughout a woman’s pregnancy.

A discussion group on “prebiotic applications in children”, chaired by Dr. Michael Cabana of San Francisco (USA) and Gigi Veereman of Brussels (Belgium), discussed evidence-based uses of prebiotics in children in three areas: (1) prevention of chronic disease; (2) treatment of disease; and (3) growth and development. While the latter category has the best support at present (specifically for bone development, calcium absorption, and stool softening), the other two areas may be ripe for more research and innovation. The chairs are preparing a review that covers the outcomes of this discussion group.

Next year in Banff

ISAPP’s next annual meeting is open to scientists from its member companies and will be held on June 2-4, 2020 in Banff, Canada.

 

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

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ISAPP plans consensus panel on synbiotics

The term ‘synbiotic’ – which refers to a substance that combines both a probiotic and prebiotic – lacks a concise, modern definition. Stakeholders, including researchers, regulatory experts, consumers, marketers, industry scientists and healthcare providers, would benefit from a clear definition of synbiotics, a concise review of the state of the science of synbiotics, and a clarification of what kinds of products fall under the synbiotic scope.

ISAPP will convene a panel of top scientific experts on May 13th in Antwerp to develop a consensus around this topic. This panel will be chaired by Prof. Kelly Swanson, The Kraft Heinz Company Endowed Professor in Human Nutrition, Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and Division of Nutritional Sciences, and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Prof. Swanson is known for his research on the mechanisms by which nutritional interventions affect health outcomes in both animals and humans. He is a co-author of the 2017 ISAPP consensus statement on the definition and scope of prebiotics.

As with the ISAPP consensus statements on probiotics (Hill et al. 2014) and prebiotics (Gibson et al. 2017), ISAPP is working with Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology to publish the outcome of the synbiotics panel.

ISAPP’s focus on the science of probiotics and prebiotics makes it uniquely positioned to champion a panel of experts to discuss the definition and scientific justification for synbiotics.

The consensus panel members are:

  • Kelly Swanson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA (chair)
  • Glenn Gibson, University of Reading, UK
  • Gregor Reid, University of Western Ontario, Canada
  • Kristin Verbeke, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium
  • Nathalie Delzenne, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium
  • Robert Hutkins, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA
  • Karen Scott, University of Aberdeen, UK
  • Raylene Reimer, University of Calgary, Canada
  • Hannah Holscher, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
  • Meghan Azad, University of Manitoba, Canada
  • Mary Ellen Sanders, ISAPP

2018 Annual Meeting Report Now Available

The meeting report for the Annual Meeting June 5-7th 2018 ISAPP in Singapore is now available, featuring overviews of the speakers and discussion group conclusions.

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

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

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

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

Slides and abstracts for the meeting can be found on the ISAPP website under the “Annual Meetings” tab, available to meeting participants only.

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ISAPP’s First Meeting in Asia is a Huge Success

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

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

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

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

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

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