Reader response

Probiotics slamming professor slammed

Related tags Probiotics Microbiology

Yesterday’s lead story on reported comments made about probiotics by Michael Wilson, a London-based microbiology professor, when speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK last week.

His views, which can be found here​, provoked plenty of response from industry and academia, most of it criticising Professor Wilson for taking a pro-pharmaceutical stand and misunderstanding just what probiotics are, how they function, the body of science that is in place for them, and how they are regulated and utilised in foods and supplements.

Canadian-based probiotics pioneer and researcher, Professor Gregor Reid, sent the most thorough response in which he questioned Professor Wilson’s specialist knowledge of probiotics. We quote from that response at length here:

No offence, but…

“I am surprised by this article on many counts. There are lots of talks by microbiologists so how on earth did this one from little known Cheltenham make the news! Was it a newspaper which wanted to get readership through controversy, or a lobby group averse to probiotics?”​ questioned Professor Reid who is director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics at Lawson and professor of microbiology and immunology at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at The University of Western Ontario.

“No offence to Professor Wilson, but he's not an expert in probiotics and if he did indeed say these things then he's entitled to his opinion…Sadly, Professor Wilson's comments were quoted and not critiqued, perhaps even by himself.

“Presumably he can define health and has evidence that probiotics don't help anyone who is healthy. Actually nobody is healthy if you think of us as heading towards death. One third of so-called healthy women have bacterial vaginosis and we have shown probiotics can help many of them. Normal otherwise healthy people suffer from constipation and episodes of IBS and probiotics help them.“Surely he didn't actually say that probiotics can cause problems if you are sick? This contravenes volumes of scientific literature, but if probiotics are no good for health and too dangerous for disease, those of us in this rapidly growing field need a new career – perhaps in Cheltenham!”

Probiotic definitions

Professor Reid questioned the basis upon which Professor Wilson was defining probiotics.

“A product is not probiotic unless it confers a health benefit on the host so if a product is given to a specific patient group and it makes them worse, it’s not probiotic. [Professor Wilson] omitted to mention any such situation where probiotics are problematic and make people worse. Some regulatory agencies have a carte blanche qualifier not to use probiotics on immune-compromised subjects when in some cases these are people who could use them.

“They have shown benefits in over 300 HIV AIDS patients we've treated, and shown to be safe in other studies. For cancer patients why are we content to use toxic drugs that wipe out our own immunity, yet he's worried about probiotics that night enhance our defences?

“It seems strange to pick on probiotics even though everyone in the field knows that more research is needed on mechanisms. How about he lobbies the UK National Institute of Health (NIH) to pay for some of this work?


He said Professor Wilson’s assertion that probiotics were under-regulated and potentially unsafe was unfounded and defended the ability of regulators in the US, EU and elsewhere to ensure only safe products entered the market. “I and others have been fighting for improved standards and use of the word probiotic if appropriate and adequate studies have been done, including in humans. He should compliment those who are trying both in science/medicine and industry. “Cheltenham has long been famous for its horse racing. If it wants to get onto the world map in discussing probiotic science, it should ask people to speak who know the field well and who can give Professor Wilson a run for his money! With some research it might even find probiotics that help horses too.”

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