Mindy D. had suffered from constipation for years when her gastroenterologist advised her, at 38, to take a popular over-the-counter probiotic. Over the next two years, she experimented with different dosages, sometimes taking it three times a day. But she kept getting sicker—sometimes so ill she couldn't work.
"We shouldn't just presume probiotics are safe."
Her symptoms improved only after she traveled from Long Island to Georgia to see Satish S. C. Rao, a gastroenterologist at Augusta University. "The key thing was taking her off probiotics and treating her with antibiotics," he says.
That solution sounds bizarre, if, like many, you believe that antibiotics are bad and probiotics good. Millions of Americans take probiotics—live bacteria deemed useful—assuming there can be only positive effects. The truth is that you really don't know how any probiotic will affect you. To quote the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education, "It remains unclear what strains of bacteria at what dose by what route of administration are safe and effective for which patients."
"We shouldn't just presume probiotics are safe," says Purna Kashyap, a gastroenterologist from the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, and a member of the Center's scientific advisory board. Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the European Food Safety Authority have approved probiotics as a medical treatment. Things can go very wrong in the ill: Among patients with severe acute pancreatitis, one study found that a dose of probiotics increased the chance of death. Even randomized controlled trials of probiotics rarely report harms adequately and the effect over the long-term has not been studied.
Many people pick up a product at a drug store or health store without ever telling a doctor. Doctors are fans, too: in a 2017 survey of healthcare providers at Stanford, more than 60 percent of the respondents said they prescribed probiotics. Many did so inconsistently, leaving the choice of which probiotic up to the patient. Healthy people take them for a range of unproven benefits, including protection from infections or heart disease or to sharpen their brains.
It's fine—unless it isn't. "Probiotics are capable of altering the microbiome in unpredictable ways," explains Leo Galland, an internist in New York who specializes in difficult digestions. "I've had patients who got gas and bloating, constipation or diarrhea from probiotics."
Your Microbiome Is Unique
The booming probiotic market has fed on excitement about the new science of the microbiome, the genetic material of all the microbes that live in our bodies and on our skin. Microbes make up 1 to 3 percent of every human being's body mass—you carry trillions of them, including more than a hundred species and thousands of strains. To identify a microbe, you need to know the genus, species and strain. For example, in Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, the ingredient in the OTC probiotic Culturelle, Lactobacillus is the genus, rhamnosus is the species and GG is the strain designation.
Variations in your microbiome could help explain why you put on weight or suffer from Crohn's or depression. Each of us has our own unique mix.
A decade ago, the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) launched the Microbiome Project to establish a baseline description of health. Scientists sequenced the DNA in more than 2,200 strains, still a small fraction of the whole.
Within a couple of years, we had evidence that our microbiomes are distinctive. Another team used the NIH data set to look into the idea of microbial "fingerprints." A classic computer science algorithm allowed it to assign individuals "codes" defined by DNA sequences of their microbes—no human DNA required. Using information solely from the guts, "Eighty percent of individuals could still be uniquely identified up to a year later," they wrote.
That distinctiveness makes a difference when we try to change our mix by swallowing bacteria considered "pro." Even in healthy people, the reactions to probiotics vary widely, according to a study in Cell in September. The team examined the intestines of healthy volunteers who had taken a cocktail of eleven strains of probiotics for the experiment. Which took up residence in the intestinal lining? The answer depended on the person. Led by Eran Segal and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, the authors concluded that effective supplements would have to be personalized.
Patients with "brain fog" improved dramatically when they were taken off their probiotics and given antibiotics as well.
To truly customize a probiotic, however, we'd have to know the state of an individual's gut microbiome, identify danger signs and link them to symptoms, isolate relevant strains of probiotics that might be needed, and get them into the gut lining effectively. Commercial tests are still at step one. Several companies claim to assess your microbiome based on a stool sample—but the Weizmann team has also shown that the differences between our gut linings aren't apparent from our stool. Galland has explored testing his patients looking for ways to help. "I've concluded that uBiome, American Gut Project, and others don't yield useful information," he observes.
Can A Probiotic Make Your Brain Foggy?
Besides taking her probiotic, Mindy D. had cut out gluten and upped her vegetables and fruits. But soon after she ate her seemingly healthy meals, she would begin to feel dizzy and sometimes even slurred her words, as if she were drunk. "It was such an intense feeling," she said.
A slender 5 ft. 2 inches, she dropped 20 pounds, becoming unhealthily thin. She traveled to see specialists in Minnesota and Connecticut and took two month-long medical leaves before she found Rao in Georgia.
In June, Rao created a stir when he and his coauthors reported that a cluster of his patients with "brain fog"—the "intense feeling" Mindy D. described—improved dramatically when they were taken off their probiotics and given antibiotics as well.
His idea was that lactobacilli and other bacteria colonized their small intestines, rather than making it to the colon as intended—a condition known as "small intestinal bacteria overgrowth" (SIB0) that some gastroenterologists treat with antibiotics. In this group, he argues, the small intestine produced the brain fog symptoms as a consequence of D-lactic acidosis, a phenomenon usually associated with damaged intestines. "If you have brain fogginess along with gas and bloating, please don't take probiotics," Rao says.
The paper prompted a rebuttal at the end of September from Eamonn Quigley, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist, who criticized the methodology in detail. Kashyap, of the Mayo Clinic, is skeptical as well. "People were picked for their brain fogginess and they were taking probiotics. Probiotics could be an innocent bystander," he says.
"It's hard for me to imagine the mechanism of say, Culturelle, causing SIB0," says Shira Doron, a specialist in infectious diseases and associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine who studies probiotics. "The vast majority of people will never suffer a side effect from a probiotic. But probiotics are a live organism so they have a unique set of potential risks that other supplements don't have. They can give you a severe infection in very rare circumstances."
The larger point is that probiotics should be used under a doctor's care. In April, a panel of 14 experts on behalf of the European Society for Primary Care Gastroenterology concluded that "specific probiotics are beneficial in certain lower GI problems." That does not mean any over-the-counter probiotic is likely to help you because it helped your cousin.
"Even your doctor may be going by anecdotal experience, rather than hard science."
Both Galland and Rao use probiotics in their practice, but carefully. "We advise caution against excessive and indiscriminate use of probiotics especially without a well-defined medical indication, and particularly in patients with gastrointestinal dysmotility," when the muscles of the digestive system don't work normally, Rao's team wrote.
"Because there are so many studies out there that are poorly done, that aren't looking at side effects, the science is murky. Even your doctor may be going by anecdotal experience, rather than hard science," Doron adds. Your doctor may tell you that many of his patients report a great experience with probiotics. As Doron points out, however, with disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, the most common gastrointestinal diagnosis, the placebo effect is very strong. Many patients could "respond to anything if they believe it works," she says.
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."