Danone supports microbiome research ‘critical’ for future innovation

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

A deepening understanding of the relationship between our microbiomes and health will open innovation opportunities at Danone / Pic: GettyImages-nastco
A deepening understanding of the relationship between our microbiomes and health will open innovation opportunities at Danone / Pic: GettyImages-nastco

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Danone marked a ‘decade of commitment’ to exploring the link between human health and the microbiome through its latest Fellowship Grant Program. We caught up with Dr Miguel Freitas, VP of Scientific Affairs, to find out more about what we’ve learnt over the last ten years and where he expects future research breakthroughs to take us.

For the past decade, Danone North America has supported research, science and education in the field of the gut microbiome, yogurt and probiotics through its Fellowship Grant Program. The aim is to ‘empower creative minds’ and the company believes that supporting third-party research to advance the field is a ‘crucial’ part of its mission.

“It is our hope that providing grants to these graduate students encourages the best minds to enter the research industry and grow the body of research we have. By funding this research, we gain valuable information we can learn from, and use, to bring better health to people through products, which is a crucial part of our brand mission,”​ Danone’s VP of Scientific Affairs Dr Miguel Freitas told us.

This year's honourees, selected by a committee of scientific experts, are Elena Kozlova at University of California, Riverside, and Yannis Ntekas at Cornell University.

Reflecting on this year’s grant recipients, Dr Freitas said: “Each year it is exciting to see the breadth of unique research proposals. This year we had many exceptional proposals which made it difficult to choose just two awardees. That being said, we’re excited about the winners this year as the studies are unique and have the potential to make meaningful discoveries.”

Cornell’s Nteka will implement a novel single-cell RNA sequencing technology to study the dynamics of gut colonization by probiotics and the strain-specific mechanisms by which probiotics affect human health and wellbeing.

"Our research will leverage single-cell RNA sequencing technologies to effectively profile the gut microbiome with cell-phenotype resolution,”​ Ntekas elaborated. “It will assist the field to address big unknowns like the dynamics of gut colonization by probiotics, and their interaction with the native microbiome."

“The goal of these findings would be to contribute to not only microbiome basic research but set the ground for the next generation of probiotics,”​ Freitas added.

Meanwhile, over at UC Riverside, Kozlova will test the novel hypothesis that polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), common household flame retardants, may lead to altered behavioural phenotypes in infants. She will examine if maternally transferred probiotics, through breastfeeding, drives proper development of social behaviour in children via the development and signalling in the brain. “Her findings hope to provide critical mechanistic information on the underlying the role of microbiota on socioemotional development,​” Dr Freitas explained.

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How does the microbiome influence behavioural development? Elena Kozlova will investigate / Pic: GettyImages-FarmVeld

Microbiome research evolving ‘at great speed’

The impact of yogurt and probiotics on the gut microbiome has been tied to brain, digestive and immune function. Unsurprisingly, consumer interest in fermented foods, immune health and gut health has soared, Danone reflected. And interest is expected to continue to rise with forecasters at Grand View Research suggesting the global probiotics market​ will reach US$77.09 billion in value by 2025.

“In the past 10 years we have learned an increasing amount about the microbiome. We now know that our microbiome impacts nearly every aspect of our health, from the obvious- our gut, to cognition, mood, immunity, allergies, and more,”​ Dr Freitas enthused.

It is a field that continues to ‘evolve at great speed’, the nutrition expert noted, with top research institutions pioneering new ways to study various aspects of its power, potential and influence. This developing understanding has helped Danone innovate behind some of its leading brands in categories like yogurt and infant nutrition.

Globally, Danone offers consumer products from infant formula to dairy and plant based fermented foods that include both probiotics and prebiotics, we were told.

Take the Activia brand as an example. Backed by 20 years of research, Activia has been shown to help to help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomfort when consumed twice a day for two weeks, as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. It does this thanks to the ‘billions of live and active probiotics’ it contains, including a signature probiotic culture Bifidus (Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494). “The Bifidus culture was specifically selected because of its ability to survive passage through the digestive system and reach the large intestine in sufficient amounts,”​ Dr Freitas noted.

“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.

“Benefits of yogurt and probiotics on the digestive function or immune function have been studied for several years, including at Danone with probiotic products such as Activia that helps support gut health; however, because of the more recent advancements on the study of the microbiome, we are starting also to better understand how yogurt and probiotic cultures can impact the microbiome, which is critical for future innovations.”

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Our understanding of the microbiome is evolving rapidly / Pic: GettyImages comotion design

The microbiome, probiotics and the future of innovation at Danone

Dr Freitas is particularly excited about new discoveries that are being made concerning the mechanisms and impact of the gut-brain axis.

“One of the most promising areas of future research are related to the gut-brain connection. Experts call the gut our 'second brain' and for a very good reason. After the brain, our gut hosts the largest number of neurons in the body. The potential of probiotics benefits in the relationship with our brain and mood is starting to be unveiled as we better understand how the brain impacts gut health, as well as how the health of our gut and the microbiome impacts brain health,”​ we were told.

What other breakthrough microbiome science is likely to shape the future of innovation?

“The large part that remains to be discovered is the mechanisms by which probiotics and our microbiome’s work, and how this varies greatly in each individual,”​ Dr Freitas observed.

He believes that this understanding could hold the key to the development of personalized nutrition solutions.

“One of the future challenges in the field of nutrition will be to personalize nutrition and take into account the gut microbiota. It is plausible that in the future, we will be ingesting foods, food components or specific designed bacteria that are tailored to change specifically gut microbes that are relevant to health.”

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