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 Probiotics for Human Health

Probiotics are microbial food ingredients, or additives, with health-promoting effects. The ‘Proeuhealth’ research cluster (FP5, Quality of Life) aims to improve disease prevention and treatment through a better understanding of the interactions of probiotics with the intestinal microflora. In eight different projects, the cluster's 64 partners from 16 countries focus on diverse aspects of probiotics: their action, their therapeutic applications, and commercial opportunities for the food and pharmaceutical industries.   Graphic element
Food and health a problematic relationship

Food and health have always been closely linked together – and not only in popular belief. The Japanese are convinced that there is no fundamental difference between foodstuffs and medicaments: both have the power to heal bodily dysfunctions, while an imbalance can disrupt our well-functioning. In fact, our Western view of eating and healing is not so different from this.

At the very foundation of our health and well-being lies the ecosystem of our intestinal microbes. These complex flora, comprising a large range of different bacterial species, play multiple roles: supplying us, their human host, with additional nutritional value from our food; protecting us against intestinal infections; and contributing to the development of our immune system.

On the other hand, any kind of disturbances in this ecosystem can leave us more vulnerable to exogenous and endogenous intestinal infections. Intestinal bacteria have also been involved in some chronic and degenerative diseases of the gut.

Understanding how to improve our health

Scientists need to better understand the relationships between food, the intestinal microbiota, and health, to prevent, or treat, disease. This know-how will enable researchers to develop foods and therapies that can maintain or improve our health.

Of course, many health-improving properties of certain foods are already well known: dairy products may strengthen the immune system; foods and vegetables contain vitamins which protect us from infections; meat delivers proteins important for the growth and development of the young body; fibre-rich foods are important for the correct transport of digested food; and plant hormones have a long-term protective function against cardiac diseases and, probably, cancer.

Still, we have many mysteries and problems to resolve, which arise mainly from the complex interactions between our food, intestinal micro-organisms and human metabolism on the molecular level. Many small research projects are currently being carried out in Europe, but how can they become more efficient?

Health improvement through co-operation

The answer is EU-supported clustering. The cluster Proeuhealth brings together 64 research partners from 16 countries working in the fields of food, gastro-intestinal-tract functionality and human health (eight projects: QLK1-2000-00042/00108, QLK1-2001-00067/00135/00146/00563/01179/01273). The cluster aims to provide:

  • A clearer understanding of the relationship between food, intestinal bacteria and human health and disease;
  • New molecular research tools for studying the composition and activity of the intestinal microbiota;
  • New therapeutic and prophylactic treatments for intestinal infections, chronic intestinal diseases, and for healthy ageing;
  • A molecular understanding of immune modulation by probiotic bacteria and examination of probiotics as vaccine-delivery vehicles;
  • Process formulation technologies for enhanced probiotic stability and functionality;
  • Commercial opportunities for the food and pharmaceutical industries.
Some examples

The following examples will show what concrete achievements are envisaged.

Molecular methods to study the human gut microbiota

Studying the intestinal flora has never been an easy task because it is very difficult to observe the food-microbiota-body interactions in real time. Developing advanced automated molecular methods to monitor the responses of the intestinal flora’s composition and gene expression will be essential for further research. These tools will certainly help to develop and identify links between intestinal dysfunctions and intestinal bacteria which, in turn, can help us to better understand the mechanisms underlying the relationships between diet, lifestyle, intestinal bacteria and optimal health. (QLK1-2000-00108)

Probiotic strains with designed health properties

Probiotic lactobacilli are known to affect immunomodulation. The molecular mechanisms will be examined using specifically designed bacterial strains. The increased understanding of the molecular factors affecting immunomodulation and immunogenicity will enable the selection of probiotic strains with enhanced protective or therapeutic effects. Two types of intestinal diseases will be targeted in particular: inflammations such as inflammatory bowel disease; and infections such as those caused by rotavirus and Helicobacter pylori (linked to ulcers). (QLK1-2001-00146)

Probiotics and gastrointestinal disorders

Inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are immune-mediated diseases that result in chronic relapsing inflammation of the gut. Two specially selected probiotics will be tested in long-term human clinical trials for their alleviating effects. (QLK1-2001-00563)

Functional food and healthy ageing

If the effect of ageing on the composition and activity of the intestinal microbiota was better known, strategies could be developed to protect against degenerative intestinal diseases and reduce the susceptibility to infection in the elderly. Based on the results of this kind of investigation, new functional food ingredients will be developed that positively affect the intestinal microbiota.

These ingredients will be tested in trials involving elderly people in order to examine effects on biomarkers of health and disease. (QLK1-2001-00067)

Nutritional enhancement of probiotics and prebiotics

Delivering the health benefits of probiotics and prebiotics to consumers depends essentially on their successful processing. Viability, stability and functionality of these ingredients must be maintained during processing, formulation and storage. The effects of processing on probiotics will be explored and used to develop optimal process and formulation technologies. New processing techniques will be applied to the development of functionally enhanced prebiotics and synbiotic combinations. (QLK1-2000-00042)


Prof. Tiina Mattila-Sandholm
VTT Biotechnology
PO Box 1500
FIN-02044 VTT
Tel: +358 9 456 5200

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