A new study by Rutgers scientists has examined COVID-19’s impact on patients’ microbiome. Commencing in May 2020, the study zeroed in on the microbiome because many COVID-19 sufferers complained of gastrointestinal issues – both during the acute phases of their illness and while recuperating. The findings show that acute infection disrupts a healthy balance between good and bad microbes in the gut, especially with antibiotic treatment.
COVID-19 upsets the bacterial balance
The research found COVID-19-positive patients had altered microbiome community characteristics compared to the recovered and control subjects. This observation was true when measured by both alpha diversity, microbiome diversity applicable to a single sample, and beta diversity, which looks at the similarity or dissimilarity of two communities. In COVID-19-positive patients, the researchers observed depletion of Bacteroidaceae, Ruminococcaceae, and Lachnospiraceae, as well as decreased relative abundances of the genera Faecalibacterium, Adlercreutzia, and the Eubacterium brachy group.
“We present evidence that acute COVID-19 induces gut microbiota dysbiosis with depletion of particular populations of commensal bacteria, a phenomenon heightened by antibiotic exposure, but the general effects do not persist post-recovery,” the researchers revealed.
Dr Martin Blaser, the Henry Rutgers Chair of the Human Microbiome at Rutgers University, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine (CABM) at Rutgers and an author on the study, explained that research into the impact of viral diseases and antibiotic treatments on the microbiome are in early days. “There really has not been extensive work on changes of the intestinal microbiome in the course of an acute viral disease to the extent that is happening now for COVID—in part because there are so many cases. By and large, this is new scientific territory.”
The findings could therefore have implications for the treatment of viral diseases as well as understanding if there is any link between microbiome health and long COVID. “This study was not designed to examine long COVID in any way. But the question is a good one: could studying the microbiome of people before, during, and after COVID-19 serve as a predictor of whether or not they will develop long COVID? We have longitudinally collected saliva samples that might in the future be used to address this point,” he told FoodNavigator.
The study was supported by Danone and by the National Institutes of Health. “Since the gut microbiome plays such an important role in keeping us healthy, we wanted to help support research examining the role of the microbiome related to COVID-19 incidence and outcomes, which is still an urgent public health crisis currently impacting the world in so many dimensions,” Dr Miguel Freitas, VP of Health and Scientific Affairs at Danone North America, told us.
Innovation, immunity and the microbiome
So what does the discovery mean for R&D at Danone? Dr Freitas said that the company looked at it within the context of a mounting body of evidence that demonstrates the ‘beneficial effects’ of probiotics in areas like digestive health and immunity. “While the usual suspects of vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc are often touted to support the immune system, some strains of probiotics have been found to benefit immune health, for example by improving the oxidative burst capacity of monocytes, important cells for the proper function of the immune system. By doing this, these probiotics increase the capacity of these monocytes to protect us against different environmental stresses,” he said.
These developments are already playing out in Danone’s innovation pipeline. “Certain probiotics belonging to the species Lactobacillus casei have been shown to support immune health , like the ones in DanActive. Each bottle contains more than 10 billion of its live and active probiotic strain, Lactobacillus casei Immunitas (L. casei DN-114 001). This probiotic survives and remains active in the digestive tract where about 70% of your immune system is located,” the research expert revealed.
“Understanding the microbiome and biotics in general is an important component of Danone R&D strategy. We believe that consumption of biotics, such as pro- and prebiotics have an important role in shaping our microbiome, specially in modern times, where we are putting it face to challenges frequently, such as administration of antibiotics.”
Unlocking 'new avenues of innovation'
Dr Freitas is excited about the far-reaching implications developments in our scientific understanding of microbiome health will have on innovation at the France-headquartered dairy-to-nutrition company – and he certainly doesn’t see the applications being limited to Danone’s specialised nutrition business.
“This research can unlock new avenues of innovation not only limited to specialised nutrition. Although very much needed, we know that administration of antibiotics has a true detrimental impact in the microbiome. Other common lifestyle factors that can have an impact on the microbiome include lack of sleep, stress, dehydration, alcohol, certain eating patterns. On the other hand, we also know that certain biotics, such as pre and probiotics can change the microbiome in a favourable way. Biotics with strong science can be incorporate in different product segments, from fermented dairy, to fluid milk and infant formula.”
Innovation in microbiome health – which to date has largely been the prevail of the nutraceutical sector – is therefore expected to be increasingly seen in mainstream food categories, the R&D vice president predicted.
“The mission of Dannon and Danone is to provide health through food to has many people as possible, and yogurt and fermented products are perfect foods carriers of live bacteria that can have an impact on different body functions and ultimately on the microbiome. The impact of the gut microbiome on human health is far-reaching, from benefits to our digestive and immune system to playing a key role as the core of our mind body connection, which is why investments to better understand this unique ecosystem are so important,” he stressed.
Dr Freitas said Danone was founded on the then ‘breakthrough concept’ that fermented foods and the bacteria they contain could ‘bring health to all’. “Danone continues to place probiotics and the gut microbiome at the core of its health strategy. For Activia and DanActive, the company has conducted 48 clinical studies on probiotics, gut health and the immune system and works with nearly 2,000 scientists across two dedicated research centres in Europe.
“For example, Activia’s exclusive probiotic strain Bifidobacterium animalis lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494 was chosen for its remarkable ability to survive in yogurt products and through the entire GI tract. Activia may help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomfort (bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort and rumbling) when consumed twice a day for two weeks as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. Activia is also the number-one doctor-recommended probiotic brand in the probiotic space.
“While there is an increased effort towards designing microbiota-targeting therapies aiming to restore the microbiota of diseased patients, there is a lack of approaches designed to prevent the disruption of the symbiosis between human and its microbial symbionts in healthy individuals. This is where food and nutrition can have an important role. The next-generation biotics should be selected for their ability to complement gut microbiome deficiencies or unbalances.”
Alterations of the fecal microbiota in relation to acute COVID-19 infection and recovery
Authors: Yue Sandra Yin, Carlos D Minacapelli, Veenat Parmar, Carolyn C Catalano, Abhishek Bhurwal, Kapil Gupta, Vinod K Rustgi, Martin J Blaser