Dubbed ‘Microbe Mom,’ the initiative is a 4-way collaboration between Irish firm Alimentary Health Group, University College Dublin, and National Institute of Biotechnology Research and Training (NIBRT).
Speaking at the launch event in Cork, Ireland, minister for agriculture, food and the marine, Michael Creed TD said, “Optimising diet and the nature of food and supplements for pregnant women and babies is crucial to ensuring their health and wellbeing throughout their lives”.
“In addition to helping us achieve this, Microbe Mom will also further solidify Cork’s reputation as a hub of excellent research.”
As well as investigating the impact of specific probiotic supplements on the mother’s health, the collaboration will take a look at the most likely methods of transfer of bifidobacteria strains from mother to baby.
Of particular interest is the impact of the mother’s diet and health on her gut bacteria and what bacteria she transfers to her baby at birth.
“We will look at other taxa of bacteria but the primary focus is very much Bifidobacterium,” said Microbe Mom project leader Dr Paul Cotter, head of department, food biosciences in Teagasc and principal investigator at APC Microbiome Ireland.
“Bifidobacteria have received significant attention due to their proven contribution to human gut health and the use of specific strains as probiotics. Advances in DNA sequencing technology allow us to develop scientifically proven and clinically supported probiotic bifidobacteria, and investigate their transfer from mom to baby.”
Bifidobacteria are the main bacteria that nature selects for the newborn gut and has been shown to play a key role in programming metabolism and the immune system.
Indeed, exposure to the right microbes in this critical development window plays an important role in allergy and asthma risk as well as metabolic health in later life
Supplementation with probiotics has been shown to improve sugar control in men and women with type 2 diabetes and prevent worsening insulin resistance in late pregnancy.
Probiotics may have a role in normalising sugar in this group of women. However, each bacterial strain is unique and these studies will identify the optimum bifidobacteria for mother and baby health.
Welcoming the investment, minister of state for training, skills, innovation, research and development, John Halligan, TD, said, “The wellbeing of mothers and babies is very important to the Irish Government, and so it is great to see this significant joint-investment by the Government Agency, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), and Irish company, Alimentary Health Group”.
“This project will build on the long-standing partnership between the company and the SFI Research Centre ‘APC Microbiome Ireland’ in UCC, which in and of itself is a demonstration of the great heights that Irish science can achieve.”
Irish research hub
APC Microbiome Ireland represent the heart of a microbiome research hub that has seen the institute partner with DuPont Nutrition & Health.
The multiyear partnership will focus on maternal and infant microbiomes, with the goal to develop solutions to help establish a healthy microbiome in early life, and ensure long-term health of the individual.
In 2016, the institute formed Tucana Health Ltd (Tucana), a spin-out firm funded by Science Foundation Ireland to investigate the role of the gut microbiota.
In the same year, 4D pharma acquired the firm in a €3.5m (£3.1m) deal intended to enhance 4D pharma's ability to recognise patients who may gain value from live biotherapeutics, used in treatments for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Alimentary Health is the foundation industry partner of the APC. Both organisations went on to co-develop the 35624 culture (Bifidobacterium longum) found in Alflorex, a probiotic supplement, which targets and alleviates the symptoms of IBS. Recently launched in the UK, the strain is known in the US as Align.
“This research is key to understanding which bacteria make a key difference to baby,” said Dr Eileen Murphy, technical director, Alimentary Health Group.
“It’s also vital to understand how they can best be transferred to baby too e.g. should they be given to the mother during pregnancy or should we give them directly to baby? This knowledge will help us develop a range of probiotics with the precise qualities we need to optimise maternal and baby health.”