Probiotic eyed to block E. coli infections at source

A probiotic product developed at the University of Guelph is in testing to prove its effectiveness in stopping E. coli and other food-borne pathogens before they can cause harmful infections.

The new group of bioactive compounds discovered at Guelph could go so far as to help save lives in parts of the world where as many as 1.5 million children per year now die of diarrheal diseases for lack of access to clean water, researchers said Tuesday.

The patent for the probiotic has already been licensed to a southern Ontario research company, MicroSintesis Inc., with plans to develop products not only for infants and toddlers in the human health market, but for livestock in the animal health market to help prevent food-borne infections at the source.

MicroSintesis’ CEO, Hannah McIver, said in a university release Tuesday that the probiotic “has the potential to change the way we feel about eating certain foods, about how and where we travel to, and in many cases save lives.”

“We are excited not only about the commercial applications of this technology as a broad-spectrum treatment for several enteric diseases, but also about the research implications of this discovery,” Guelph dairy microbiologist Mansel Griffiths, the project’s lead researcher, said Tuesday.

“As the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases, here we have a natural product with a unique mode of action that will allow us to target infection in new ways,” said Griffiths, who’s also director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety.


When enteric pathogens such as E. coli O157 or C. difficile are ingested, they need to attach to a host’s intestinal wall in order to colonize the gut and produce their toxins, researchers said.

To do this, the pathogens rely on chemical signals to switch on genes required to make that attachment. The probiotic bacteria in trials at Guelph emit molecules that interfere with those chemical signals, preventing the pathogen from attaching to the intestine and stopping the infection cycle before it begins.

The Guelph researchers say they’ve shown that the effects may not be limited to just E. coli and C. difficile. Further results from the university’s research shows the new probiotic molecules may also affect the virulence of salmonella and campylobacter.

Citing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the university noted those bacteria combined account for 22 per cent of North American cases and 36 per cent of deaths due to food-borne illness each year.

Citing the recent outbreak of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) causing serious illnesses and several dozen deaths in Western Europe, McIver noted up to 10 per cent of patients infected with EHEC will develop the life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome.

“Most of these will be young children or the elderly,” she said in Tuesday’s release. “For the majority of us, food-borne infections are a relatively minor inconvenience. For many, especially the young and the old, they can be deadly.”

Initial studies at Guelph with mice showed declining levels of E. coli in their intestines over a seven-day period after the animals were fed the probiotic molecules and then infected with the bacteria.

The mice showed significantly reduced levels of infection compared to those untreated with the probiotic product, the university said.

Using an artificial system that mimics the human intestine, the researchers say they’ve shown similar effects may be possible in people.

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