Health crazes come and go. One of the latest fads? Probiotics: products with live bacteria marketed as beneficial
to the digestive system and the human “microbiome”—
the mini-ecosystem of microorganisms inside the human
gut. Foods such as yogurt and kombucha currently
dominate the probiotics market, but projects to develop
microbiome therapeutic drugs are underway.
Driven mainly by food and beverage products, the
global probiotics market could be worth US$64.6 billion by 2023, up from US$36.6 billion in 2015, according to a Global Markets Insights report. Asia Pacific
is currently the largest market, according to Allied
Investors understandably want in. Launched in 2013,
the world’s first microbiome-focused venture fund
from French venture capital firm Seventure Partners
accumulated €160 million in financing from investors, entrepreneurs and corporations, including yogurt
maker Danone, as of December 2015.
But the science on probiotics’ efficacy remains
in question. (Food industry organizations have also
claimed probiotic products can boost the immune system, heal inflammatory bowel conditions and alleviate
allergic disorders.) Researchers still don’t fully understand the shelf life for probiotics in food or how potent
they are once ingested. Different people react differently to individual bacteria depending on their health,
stress levels and diet.
“The commercialization of food products is not primarily driven by science, but by volume, marketing and
shelf space,” says Bernat Olle, PhD, CEO of Vedanta
Biosciences, a biotech startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA that secured US$50 million in financing in
June to advance microbiome therapeutics. Focused on
how microbes interact with infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and cancer, Dr. Olle’s project teams will
begin conducting clinical studies of drugs to treat infectious diseases in the first half of 2017.
Although he views probiotic food products with
skepticism, Dr. Olle believes projects to develop drugs
that target microbiomes could deliver big benefits.
“The potential impact on human health is huge. By
modulating the microbiome with this class of drugs,
we have the opportunity to treat a range of ailments in
potentially new ways and impact the lives of patients.”
“[W]e have the
treat a range
the lives of
—Bernat Olle, PhD, Vedanta