Probiotics explode to market

What was once the exclusive domain of natural health practitioners espousing the benefits of probiotics to the converted is about to become as mainstream as frozen veggie burgers and protein drinks – and produced, promoted and sold by some familiar corporate names.

Over the last seven years, about $500 million has been invested in basic research on the workings of the human biome — the trillions of bacteria that live in each of our guts and on our skin. With a few important exceptions, this research hasn’t yielded much regarding usable treatments for disease.

In 2015, however, with an infusion of money and commitment from Big Pharma, the medical potential of manipulating the human biome will start to be tapped. In Europe and Asia, probiotics are gaining strong acceptance; data from Statista show these regions account for half of all sales between 2010 and now. 

Currently available probiotics, sold in pharmacies and health stores, are hit-or-miss microbes predominantly geared toward digestive problems. The new research has gone far toward revealing the manner in which specific bacteria affect bodily processes and will give scientists the tools to identify combinations of bacteria to treat conditions and diseases from diabetes to depression.

The boom in Big Pharma interest is readily apparent. Late in 2014, Pfizer announced a partnership with biotech firm Second Genome. In January, Second Genome began its first drug trial based on manipulating the microbiome in humans and investigating a therapy to combat Crohn’s disease.

Also in January, Nestle Health Science revealed its investment in a microbiome-focused startup developing treatments for infectious diseases and metabolic and inflammatory conditions.

Johnson & Johnson added its weight in February, announcing creation of The Janssen Human Microbiome Institute to develop treatments for autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disorders.

The word from industry observers is that a spate of investments, mergers and partnerships will continue throughout 2015 and that drugs and therapies derived from the microbiome will come to market within a few years.

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