Probiotics: a panacea or a placebo?

Last month, the Popular Science portal discussed studies of the human intestinal microbiome and too general, in his opinion, conclusions regarding the requirements of many probiotics. He came to the conclusion that the main problem in creating effective probiotics in the present tense is that it is too difficult to cultivate the specific bacteria that live in the intestines. However, an article appeared last week in Cell Host and Microbe, in which researchers at the University of Alberta say they were able to cultivate strains of bacteria in the intestines for six months. This success, albeit not so significant, may be the next step towards the creation of effective drugs.

The intestinal microbiome, like any ecosystem, is rich in fluid and is an interconnected chain of microbial communities that try to adapt in the best way to the use of the resource that helps them survive: food eaten by humans. Be that as it may, this is a very competitive environment, and due to the diversity of bacterial colonies and their rapid growth, the composition of this “network” is constantly changing, shifting towards the best adaptation to new conditions of consumption. That is why various cultures and peoples in the intestines can find a wide variety of microorganisms. While you are taking probiotics, you can support the growth and development of certain bacterial populations, especially if you take them daily. But as soon as you stop taking the drugs, their place will immediately be taken by the most fit representatives of the local flora.

Nevertheless, the question remains open: is it advisable to maintain the population of the necessary microorganisms in such an artificial way? Jens Walter, a microbiologist at the University of Alberta and lead author of the study, decided to check how long he could successfully cultivate bacterial strains in his gut. He decided to test a strain of bacteria called Bifidobacterium longum, which is found in breast milk. According to Walter, these bacteria enter the body of the newborn during breastfeeding and are the main representative of the human microbiome. The researcher wanted to find out what would happen if he transplanted bacteria to people whose population of this strain in the intestines is significantly lower than most.

For two weeks, Walter tried to cultivate bacteria in the organisms of 22 participants, giving them daily bacterial strains in powder form. Six months later, in 30% of patients, the Bifidobacterium strain was still preserved. According to Walter, this increases the importance of targeted impact on a specific niche of the microbiome and proves that the elimination of specific deficiencies of human microflora in this way is possible and very effective. However, he still has a lot of research to do before he can make any final conclusions. Perhaps if scientists succeed in developing methods for a more accurate analysis of the microflora of each individual, then in the future we may well hope for the appearance of “smart” probiotics that will help solve specific, individual problems of the patient.

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