Fonterra infant trial of probiotics for cold and flu immunity underway

Since January this year, Fonterra has been conducting a study in China to see if beneficial bacteria can help reduce the risk of infants developing colds, flus, and stomach upsets.
Senior Research Scientist

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Groups of infants aged six to 12 months are receiving follow up formulae containing Fonterra’s own strains of probiotics, Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001™ and Bifidobacterium lactis HN019™, with results due by the end of the year.
To prove the benefits for Fonterra’s strains, we need studies like these to explore the specific benefits our probiotics can offer, and perhaps even give us insights into the workings of probiotic bacteria.
Involving around 180 infants over a three-month period, the infants were randomly sorted into groups and have been provided with either the normal follow on formula without probiotics, the same formula with added HN001™, or the formula with HN019™. As the study is timed to coincide with the Chinese winter, the infants are being monitored for usual rounds of winter illnesses.
Previous studies have already shown that HN001™ and HN019™ may offer benefits for infants, if taken on a regular basis. For instance, one study conducted in Wellington and Auckland by University of Otago researchers involved giving Fonterra’s probiotics to pregnant women and then their infants to see if they could help prevent the onset of infant eczemai

Subsquent study results, published in 2010, showed that HN001™ could provide longer term benefits against eczema.  At two years of age, infants in the group given HN001™ had an almost 50 per cent drop in the rate of eczema compared to the control group. A follow-up study published in 2012ii showed that this beneficial effect was still present in most of the children as they turned four years of age, suggesting that HN001™ could continue to offer eczema protection even though it was no longer being taken. There was also evidence that HN001™ might reduce the impact of other allergic responses as well. 

The results of a second follow-up study, carried out when the children turned six years old, will be published later this year and is another chance to explore the idea that probiotic consumption in infants can lead to long-term health benefits.

Another study published in 2010iii and carried out with young children in India suggested that Fonterra’s other probiotic strain, HN019™, also had potential benefits for infants. The study showed that infants given HN019™ along with a prebiotic (a food that stimulates the growth of “good bacteria” in the gut), improved the health of the infants over a two-year period.  The study authors said the results showed “significant reduction of dysentery, respiratory morbidity and febrile illness.”  

While the results of the study were impressive, it is not clear whether the benefits are due to the probiotic HN019™ alone, or in combination with the prebiotic. The new China study is a chance for Fonterra to see what happens in the absence of the prebiotic.

Probiotics is an ongoing area of research at Fonterra and with other groups worldwide. Evidence suggests that probiotics may benefit their hosts by colonising the gut, stimulating the immune response, blocking pathogens from getting access to the gut wall, or by producing anti-microbial substances. They seem to have an ever-growing array of documented health benefits. “We believe our strains interact with the immune system,” says Fonterra Senior Research Scientist Dr James Dekker, “our probiotics seem to be teaching the immune system to behave in a certain way. The research is at an exciting phase, we are getting more evidence that HN001™ and HN019™ may help improve infant health, yet we don’t really know how exactly they work.”

“It is clear that different probiotic strains are not equal, and each type of probiotic seems to have its own unique set of health benefits. To prove the benefits for Fonterra’s strains, we need studies like these to explore the specific benefits our probiotics can offer, and perhaps even give us insights into the workings of probiotic bacteria”.

Fonterra is also involved in the product development side of probiotics– making sure the probiotics are safe, and survive once blended within consumer products such as paediatric products.

“The whole point of probiotics is that these bacteria remain dormant but alive in the product, so that when they reach the infant gut, the probiotics can revive and exert their benefit. There’s a lot of technology around keeping them in a live state over long periods of time.”

The greatest factors in dictating the survival of probiotics in food products are temperature and the amount of water present. “For instance,” Dekker says, “frozen bacteria will stay in ‘suspended animation’ indefinitely, but will die quite quickly in a moist powder kept at room temperature.  The challenge is to find ways of growing the bacteria so that they can withstand long periods at room temperature in dry powder.”  

The better the stability of the bacteria, the lower the manufacturing costs of powders containing the probiotics. “Our scientists have a long history of working with dairy cultures, how they are grown and treated, and we can apply this specialist knowledge to probiotics.”

Dekker hopes that the China study will be completed and published by the end of this year.  “We can never predict the results of these studies, so it will be very interesting to see how our strains perform,” he says.

i Wickens K, Black P, Stanley TV, Mitchell E, Fitzharris P, Tannock G, Purdie G, Crane J A differential effect of 2 probiotics in the prevention of eczema and atopy: A double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial. J Allergy Clin Immunolog 2008;122:788-94
ii Wickens K, Black P, Stanley TV, Mitchell E, Barthow C, Fitzharris P, Purdie G, Crane J (2012) A protective effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 against eczema in the first 2 years of life persists to age 4 years. Clinical & Experimental Allergy 42:1071-9
iii Sazawal et al. (2010) PLoS One. 5:e12164. Sazaeal et al. (2010) JPGN 51:341-6

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