New Way to Deliver Probiotics Shows Promise in Treating IBD

The new treatment may protect good bacteria in the gut while clearing out the bad ones, according to a study in mice.

When a delicate balance in the digestive system is disrupted, bad bacteria can take over the colon, resulting in colitis, which refers to irritation or inflammation of this part of the large intestine.

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, are treated with immunosuppressants. The medications may give rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, increase the risk of infections, and cause nausea and vomiting, among other side effects.

The researchers from Zhengzhou University in China suggest there may be an alternative strategy that includes the delivery of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, to help restore balance in the gut. However, on its way to the colon, a treatment must pass through the stomach acid, avoid being cleared out by the intestine, then fight for space alongside the numerous invading bacteria.

In their study, published in ACS Central Science, the researchers combined sodium alginate, tungsten, and calcium-containing nanoparticles into small, spherical microgels, then coated them with probiotic bacteria. The gels protected the bacteria as they made their way through the stomach and increased their retention time in the colon.

Once there, calprotectin proteins — highly expressed during colitis — bound to the calcium and disassembled the gels, allowing the tungsten to escape. By displacing molybdenum in a key enzyme-substrate of the harmful bacterium Enterobacteriaceae, tungsten reduced the microbe’s growth by 45 times. Simultaneously, probiotic colonization increased by 25 times.

In colitis mice models, the system allowed probiotics to proliferate in the intestine without any side effects. Moreover, mice receiving microgels did not experience many colitis hallmarks, such as shortened colons or damaged intestinal barriers. Although this suggests the new probiotic delivery system could be a viable treatment strategy, further research is necessary to investigate whether the findings may be applicable to humans.

Research on probiotics’ effect on IBD is limited, but studies suggest that they may be beneficial in inducing and maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis patients.

People with IBD have a defective intestinal epithelial tight junction (TJ) barrier. This weakens the intestinal barrier function, causing intestinal permeability, which allows bacteria and toxins to travel over the barrier. Research indicates that tightening the intestinal barrier can prevent infection and subsequent IBD, but there are no effective therapies specifically targeting the TJ barrier thus far.

A 2021 study found that a specific strain of beneficial bacteria, Lactobacillus acidophilus, referred to as LA1, improves barrier function. This could significantly improve the quality of life for IBD patients if proven in clinical trials.

In 2015, an estimated three million Americans had IBD, either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. The IBD symptoms may have significant impacts on patients’ quality of life, including psychological difficulties, social isolation, and high medical costs.

In addition, people with IBD are at a higher risk of other health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer, arthritis, kidney disease, liver disease, and migraine or severe headache.


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