Activia, Yakult, and Actimel – what do they have in common? Yup, it’s probiotic bacteria of course, and those pesky ad campaigns that seem to dominate our TV ad breaks. Nell McAndrew is a personal favourite…are you feeling bloated?
But, do these so-called ‘friendly bacteria’ actually do anything? The consensus at the moment is that yes, they are beneficial to digestion, encouraging the bacteria that naturally live in your gut to thrive. Our own Imperial College carried out a clinical trial in 2007, showing that drinking probiotic drinks reduced the incidence of diarrhoea occurring as a side effect of antibiotic administration.
But, research this week published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that probiotic bacteria could have a new and very exciting use – in making oral vaccinations possible.
Traditional vaccinations involve injections, which can be problematic. Especially if, like me, you suffer from a fear of needles. So, the idea of an oral vaccination sounds great, but unfortunately making such a vaccine has not been as straightforward as it sounds.
The problem is that the vaccine formulation designed for injection would be quickly digested in the stomach into inactive constituents. However, the key finding of this paper is the discovery that if the vaccine is combine with probiotic bacteria, it is protected from being destroyed by digestion. The vaccine can therefore reach the small intestine, the optimum destination for the vaccine, leading to a powerful immune response being evoked.
To test the vaccine, they fed an oral anthrax vaccine (combined with the probiotic bacteria) to one group of mice and gave another the traditional vaccine via injection. When they exposed the mice to the anthrax bacteria, the immune response produced by the mice given the oral vaccine was much more powerful than in the mice receiving the injected vaccine.
Benefits other than being a pain-free alternative, include a lack of side effects. Because probiotics are natural stimulators of the immune response, additives are not required in the oral vaccine. It is thought that it is the additives in traditional vaccines that are responsible for the side effects of vaccinations at the moment.
With the future of vaccinations looking more like dessert than scary syringes, make mine a strawberry yogurt!