For all the hype that surrounds them, probiotics—products that contain supposedly beneficial bacteria—have rarely proven their worth in large, rigorous studies. There are good reasons for this disappointing performance. The strains in most commercially produced probiotics were chosen for historical reasons, because they were easy to grow and manufacture, and not because they are well-adapted to the human body. When they enter our gut, they fail to colonize. As I wrote in my recent book, they’re like a breeze that blows between two open windows.
But even though probiotic products might be underwhelming, the probiotic concept is sound. Bacteria can beneficially tune our immune systems and protect us from disease. It’s just a matter of finding the right strains, and helping them to establish themselves. Many scientists are now trying to do just that, and one such team, led by Pinaki Panigrahi at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has just scored a big win.
Since 2008, Panigrahi’s team has been running a large clinical trial in rural India, where they gave a probiotic of their own devising to thousands of randomly selected newborn babies. Their product contained a strain of Lactobacillus plantarum, chosen for its ability to attach to gut cells. The team also added a sugar, chosen to nourish the microbe and give it a foothold when it enters a baby’s gut. Together, this combination is called a synbiotic. And it was strikingly effective.