As mainstream consumer products, probiotics are often thought of as modestly effective at best, and are typically restricted to aiding gastrointestinal function.
However, new research points to many more diverse uses for probiotics, from resolving inflammation to improving mood.
Progress with peanuts
The key difficulty facing probiotics in the therapeutic setting is that the gut microflora is typically saturated, which means it is hard for the good bacteria in probiotics to colonise.
Because of this, researchers have begun using antibiotics and intestinal cleansing in combination – and have demonstrated their ability to produce drastic changes.
In a recent clinical trial that administered small but increasing amounts of peanut allergen and the probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus to people with peanut allergy over 18 months, more than 80% of patients developed tolerance to peanuts.
This remarkable response is as a result of the probiotics’ ability to train the immune system to recognise the peanut protein as a harmless molecule rather than an invading organism – which is the way the immune system responds to peanuts in those who are allergic.
Probiotics have also shown promising effects in non-depressed human volunteers.
One study demonstrated that the amount of negative thoughts evolving from negative stimuli can be reduced with supplementation using the probiotics Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum in combination.
This indicates that probiotics could potentially be used to improve mental health in those who are ill. Harmful thought patterns are a major component of depressive disorders, and probiotics may therefore be able to help treat a disease area with a high amount of unmet clinical need.
A wealth of probiotic possibilities
Probiotics have also been implicated as key treatment options in infectious disease such as C. Difficile infection, metabolic disorders such as diabetes and developmental disorders like autism.
It is clear there is potential for these compounds to become a key aspect of healthcare provision. While not all of the potential indications will see the development of successful therapeutics, it is possible – and perhaps even likely – that probiotics will eventually be able to offer a range of cheap and effective treatment options for many patients, and will make a lasting impression on the healthcare industry.