Musings from the Microbiome Movement Human Nutrition Conference

The recently concluded Microbiome Movement Human Nutrition Conference of a few weeks ago was part of a flurry of microbiome related activities and events that took place in late October and early November, including the Global Prebiotic Association’s own hosted Global Prebiotic Week, November 1-7.

This focus on the microbiome should come as no surprise to those active within the broad category, as the scientific frontiers are being pressed on all sides not only to understand the relationships, paths, species, strains and metabolites operating within the gut microbiome alone, but also to understand other microbiomes, and axes and implications connecting the gut, brain, CNS and other systems within the body.

The Microbiome Movement online event featured a 3-day program in total—the first day of which was a pre-conference dealing with product, market and positioning before the more technical actual program commenced. I had the opportunity to represent GPA in a few different contexts, and while I was not able to devote the entire 3 days, I spent enough time and got enough value in a few ways.

For the pre-con, the concept of age targeted microbiome products was initially addressed by Ewa Hudson of Lumina Intelligence, and incidentally, at least 3 of the technical presentations over the next days would link emerging science to that market opportunity. There was a robust discussion of where true innovation comes from on the corporate side, with an admission that like in most sectors, the agility and entrepreneurship of small companies was the driver – whether that be in new applications and product formats or in new health conditions being targeted.

Much of the pre-conference sessions dealt with messaging and positioning to advantage with various audiences – a challenge we’ve also dealt with at GPA. One dialogue dealt specifically with opportunities in positioning in foods versus supplements. It was generally agreed that there is more ability to tout and lead with health benefits in the latter, whereas, at least right now, health benefits and detailed science don’t lend well to as a starting point in foods and beverages. ‘Keep it general’ was the lesson. In fact, on that subject, one presenter was quite critical of what she called ‘over-invoking’ the microbiome at every turn, claiming that this overuse would dilute or even destroy clear consumer understanding of just what the microbiome does. On a certain level, how to use which term and to what depth is at the core of any emerging space.: the need for simplicity and consumer-friendly terms, while at the same time not leaving the science untold.  

If we’re not going to use the term ‘microbiome’, just what will we use to describe this platform and environment? Where it netted out, at least for the purposes of the pre-conference sessions, was an acceptance of the dangers of ‘conflating the microbiome with a health effect’.

To the main event

As we moved to the more technical sessions of the main conference, the scope ranged from food policy and diet, all the way to basic, applied and corporate driven science.

On the policy side, the current disconnect between microbiome and policy, and the need to tie them together was made clear, including the challenge of understanding, defining and measuring dysbiosis – especially at population level.

Several corporate programs described current research programs targeting infants, toddlers and children in an effort to better understand early-stage nutrition, deficiencies, gaps and health outcomes. From asthma and immune challenges to autism, the microbiome link is becoming evident and research strategies to map species/strain gaps that can then be addressed by supplementation (pro/pre/syn) are taking shape.

We’re also hearing more and more about the gut brain axis and connection. An interesting presentation on ‘psychobiotics’ delivered by Timothy Dinan of Atlantia Food Clinical Trials dovetailed nicely from an earlier presentation that discussed the ability of modulators like probiotics and prebiotics to directly impact neurotransmitter pathways including production of serotonin, cortisol and the amino acid tryptophan. This discussion evolved to bring into question the broader role of many phytonutrients, often originally mechanistically attributed to act outside the gut per se, whereas emerging science is confirming a gut-mediated role. An example that springs to mind of this is the growing science for the microbiome-mediated effects of curcumin, which were discussed at WholeFoods Magazine and Industry Transparency Center’s Naturally Informed Microbiome event a few weeks ago.

On a personal level, I was obviously most interested in the prebiotic side of microbiome science, and was pleased to see prebiotics such as GOS, HMOs, beta-glucans and polyphenols all discussed for age-related and condition targeted applications.

In a pre-clinical presentation by platform company Prodigest, a novel carrot-based polysaccharide was introduced showing the ongoing emergence of food-based compounds with promise.

Increasingly, a broader understanding of mechanisms is increasing the potential of prebiotics. For example, one presenter discussed the role of GOS in iron absorption. Several of the presentations dealt with comparisons of prebiotic mechanisms as well as outcomes. For instance, in an examination of inflammatory markers, butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) triggered by prebiotic supplementation, was seen to increase several markers, while other SCFAs such as acetate suppressed these same markers. Prebiotics and probiotics were not the only ‘otics’ presented. Not to be dismissed, compelling early stage research on heat-killed probiotics (postbiotics per ISAPP definition) were effective on suppression of aging markers.

The volume of research into and surrounding the microbiome is truly astonishing. Any two or even three-day conference will only scratch the surface of what’s really going on.

For me, watching new connections being established between platform companies, basic and applied researchers, food policy experts and commercial organizations was a glimpse into a not-so-distant future where prebiotics, probiotics and yes, postbiotics are regular contributors to health solutions as foods, beverages, supplements and drugs.