UK-China probiotics centre plans GM research

By Eliot Beer

- Last updated on GMT

'We’re using a set of novel strategies, including trying to engineer probiotics with certain capabilities, which is a controversial subject. This is the next generation of probiotics,' says UK researcher. ©iStock/ChrisGorgio
'We’re using a set of novel strategies, including trying to engineer probiotics with certain capabilities, which is a controversial subject. This is the next generation of probiotics,' says UK researcher. ©iStock/ChrisGorgio
The UK-China Joint Centre for Probiotics Research is focusing on specific probiotic applications, and plans to use GM techniques to engineer highly targeted microorganisms to fight specific pathogens.

The centre, which launched earlier this summer, is the extension of a long collaboration between Professor Arjan Narbad of the Institute of Food Research (IFR) in the UK and professor Chen Wei at Jiangnan University in China.

Genetically engineering probiotics

The IFR’s focus in its joint centre work has been on probiotics to target food and gut pathogens, said Narbad.

We have programmes where we’re looking at beneficial microbes to prevent colonisation, or even inhibit pathogens which are food-borne or are found in hospital-acquired infections, such as Clostridium difficile​.”

He says this research includes genetic modification of organisms.

We’re using a set of novel strategies, including trying to engineer probiotics with certain capabilities, which is a controversial subject.

This is the next generation of probiotics – which we can’t use in the UK, because of GM issues, but in the future I think they will be allowed, and in America it’s not an issue at all​,” Narbad added.

The research aims to develop a bacteria which produces an enzyme targeted only at C. difficile​ bacteria, leaving the gut microbiome unaffected, unlike traditional antibiotics.

How this will be developed is a matter of debate – whether we use it as a nutraceutical or functional food, or as a medicine. If we market it as a medicine, we have to satisfy a whole different set of criteria. If we market it as a functional food, then we can’t use it in Europe or even in some parts of Asia – but in other countries such as America or Canada, it’s not as big an issue​,” said Narbad.

He believes there is a future for GM, but the public has to see the benefits.

The public will accept GM as long as they are convinced the use of GM benefits the consumer, rather than the manufacturer. That’s a big issue – at the beginning, the public perceived GM products as only benefitting the manufacturer​.”

Seed funding from Newton

The collaboration received an initial £250k (€296k) in funding from the UK government’s Newton Fund, with Jiangnan University matching this.

But this is just the start, according to Professor Narbad.

Our joint centre is very much focused on areas of joint interest to Jiangnan University and IFR – but it has some limitations as well. We can’t work on every single aspect of probiotics, and we’re limited to what we can do within a limited time and space, and budget​,” he said.

This initial funding is just start-up funding – the idea is that we develop joint programmes and publish papers, and use that as leverage to get more funding from both the UK and China​,” added Narbad.

Jiangnan and IFR both have their own priorities in probiotic research, with the Chinese university focusing on using probiotics to alleviate heavy metal toxicity, according to Narbad.

An area of interest for both institutions is antimicrobial resistance – a particular issue in China, where antibiotics in animal feed are used more widely than in the EU.

We’re trying to replace those antibiotics for growth promoters with probiotics which perform a similar function. We jointly submitted a major grant to the [UK Medical Research Council], and the equivalent organisation in China​,” said Narbad.

It was ranked quite highly, but unfortunately didn’t quite meet the cut-off, so we didn’t get the funding – but we are pursuing that same approach through other funding avenues. So that’s where we’re going in the future.​” 

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