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Probiotics Could Save Hundreds of Thousands of Newborns Each Year

Photograph by Twenty20

Probiotics have been hailed as a key solution to many health issues, ranging from digestive problems to depression. But the hype doesn't always match the realities, especially when the effects of consuming these live microorganism are put under the microscope. However, a team of scientists has finally found that all it takes is the right strain of bacteria to do wonders and possibly save the lives of hundreds of thousands of infants a year.

Since 2008, Pinaki Panigrahi at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and his colleagues have been trying to prevent sepsis (currently there's no effective prevention available), and screened more than 280 strains of bacteria to figure out which might be their best bet.

Sepsis, a severe (and usually bacterial) infection that spreads through the body, is a major cause of newborn deaths worldwide, taking more than 600,000 new lives. The idea was, instead of contributing to antibiotic resistance, maybe probiotics could help push out harmful bacteria in baby's gut by using up resources or changing the environment. The beneficial bacteria may also prevent infections by serving as barriers to the bloodstream.

When Panigrahi landed on a promising strain, lactobacillus plantarum, and tested it in a large-scale study, the results were amazing. According to the recent study, published in Nature, newborns in India who ate the microbes for a week were 40 percent less likely to develop sepsis. About 5.4 percent of those newborns developed sepsis in the first two months of life, compared to 9 percent of those in the placebo group. NPR reports that the probiotic also warded off several other types of infections, even in distant organs like the lungs.

The team planned on enrolling 8,000 infants, but they stopped at 4,557 because the trial worked so well and the sample size was already much larger than usual studies involving a few hundred babies.

A course of probiotic would only cost about $1 per baby, as it can be manufactured easily.

“We may need to test this in different settings and we’re working with the government to do so,” Panigrahi tells The Atlantic. “But this should be the standard of care. The money involved is very small. The synbiotic can be manufactured anywhere without fancy technology. And it can do so much good.”

A lot of testing still has to be done. The trial only included healthy newborns of normal weight, not groups that have a higher risk of dying from sepsis such as premature or low birth weight babies. The reason why it worked is also still unclear. Moreover, long-term side effects are still unknown. While Panigrahi's trial showed no signs of harmful side effects, there have been rare instances of probiotics causing sepsis in newborns.

But it's undeniable that the path forward looks promising. This week, Australian researchers also found that a new form of treatment combining probiotics with peanut oral immunotherapy could cure peanut allergies by reprogramming children's immune system’s response to peanuts and developing a life-changing tolerance.

There sure is a huge future for these little microbes.

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