Thursday, April 25, 2024

Fonterra hunts down good bugs

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Fonterra is banking on increased awareness about mental wellbeing and the brain-gut health relationship to boost sales in its registered probiotics and push along research into other so far undiscovered bacteria that may have positive effects on human health. Richard Rennie visited Fonterra’s Palmerston North Research and Development Centre to learn more about the bacterial success story.
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MORE than 40% of consumers are now seeking out preventative means to manage their health through food and beverage consumption, prompting Fonterra scientists to double down on work that involves probiotics, the bacteria attributed to helping boost gut health.

While still not approved for health claims, probiotics have nevertheless been linked to positive benefits when consumed, through boosting the populations of positive gut flora. The category continues to grow and the US$57billion industry is expected to grow at a compound rate of 5.6% a year from 2020-2027.

Fonterra’s head of probiotic research Dr Shalome Bassett says the company already has two commercially registered strains of probiotic bacteria for use in products and efforts are well under way to leveraging off Fonterra’s expansive bacteria library to identify other positive bacterial strains.

The market is segmented into bacterial and yeast strains, with the bacterial sector expected to see its growth continue to come from applications in medical and dietary supplements.

“The Chinese in particular are very interested in early science being done on probiotics’ role in mental wellbeing,” Bassett said. 

The research resonates with a Chinese market whose traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)  values have long recognised the link between the gut, organs and mind.

Chinese authorities recently approved a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease that contained seaweed extracts that target the gut microbiome, in turn adjusting amino acid levels that irritate the brain.

More than a century ago a UK doctor found he could help heal depressed patients in the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital by feeding them kefir, a fermented milk drink and fresh fish, in the first western work identified as a field today known as psychobiotic treatment.

“Fonterra has almost 100 years of dairy culture strains, making it one of the largest in the world at hand and this is a veritable goldmine of bacteria strains for research to discover other bacteria that could sit alongside our two commercial strains,” she said.

The cost and time required to undergo genomic sequencing to map the DNA of any living species has fallen significantly in recent years, and it is through this process Fonterra hopes to find other related and positive strains of bacteria to commercialise.

Armed with a desktop-sized genome sequencer and a smaller version no larger than a smartphone, researchers are working their way through the strain library seeking out similarities in genetic patterns to the commercial strains.

“What once would have cost over $1 million and taken a year to do is now only several hundred dollars a strain and can generate useful data in a matter of days. Our goal is to have at least five new strains discovered for use in clinical trials over the coming year,” she said.

Genomic sequencing is estimated to speed up and fill the discovery pipeline, slicing the usual decade from research to application down by half.

Any discovered strain has to meet three criteria, namely and most obviously be safe to consume, have the ability to be manufactured in volume and to be stable as an additive to food and beverages.

The co-operative’s two registered strains LactoB HN001 and BifidoB HN019 each have specific applications, with LactoB claimed to help meet immunity and digestive health.

BifidoB is claimed to help reduce constipation and certain types of infections.

The research work also contains an element of self-preservation for the dairy co-operative, with scientists picking over bacterial strains that may help reduce bovine methane emissions and help the industry meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Fonterra’s KowbuchaTM project is looking positive, with researchers working on identifying bugs that may be capable of switching off the methanogens that cause methane production in cows. 

Such a discovery contains a quirky level of circularity, given it would be coming from cows themselves. Scientists maintain such bugs are more than likely to at least clear the “safe for cows” hurdle Fonterra has for any GHG mitigating treatment, given their origins.

Researchers are also discovering strong links between proteins and neuro-muscular junctions, the chemical juncture between muscle fibre and the nervous system directing it.

Maintaining these junctions as the body ages is increasingly being linked to protein consumption, also critical for maintaining muscle mass in later years.

“So we may be able to bring several things together into a nutrition bundle, with proteins to help muscles and probiotics for the nervous system and wellness, for the complete package,” she said.

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