An evolution of probiotic research

Lawson scientist Dr. Gregor Reid was once ridiculed for claiming that healthy bacteria inhabit our bodies. The idea that we could consume bacteria to improve health was even more ludicrous.

Today, probiotics is a multimillion dollar industry and research is rapidly accelerating our knowledge of healthy bacteria.

Dr. Reid is respected worldwide for his expertise and leadership in this field.

Defining probiotics: 

In 2001, Dr. Reid was invited to chair the United Nations/World Health Organization Expert Panel on Probiotics. He developed the global definition for probiotics that is still used today: “live micro-organisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”

The first probiotic for women

Trillions of micro-organisms, including healthy bacteria, inhabit the human body. This collection of micro-organisms is called the human microbiome.

For over 30 years, Dr. Reid has studied the vaginal microbiome. In the 1980s, Dr. Reid and his mentor, Dr. Andrew Bruce, were the first to propose that healthy bacteria, called lactobacilli, provide health benefits to the vagina and bladder.

Through further research, Dr. Reid found that lactobacilli were critical in preventing vaginal and bladder infections.

“Lactobacilli naturally inhabit the urethra and vagina,” explains Dr. Reid. “But when they are reduced, harmful bacteria invade more easily and increase the risk of infection.”

Dr. Gregor Reid (right) and his mentor, Dr. Andrew Bruce (left), were the first to propose that healthy bacteria could provide health benefits to the female urogenital tract. 

Antibiotics, while effective in removing harmful bacteria, also kill beneficial bacteria like lactobacilli. A study led by Dr. Reid showed that one week of antibiotics disrupts the vaginal microbiome for at least six weeks. This is why bladder infections can return so frequently.

After many studies, Dr. Reid and his colleagues isolated two strains of lactobacilli – lactobacillus GR-1 and RC-14 – that are especially important to women’s health.

They began clinical trials in 1987 to test the ability to reintroduce these strains to the microbiome. In the early 2000s, they conducted three clinical trials that proved lactobacilli could be taken orally and still provide benefits to the urogenital tract.

After years of hard work, the two strains of lactobacilli were licensed in 2004 and sold around the world as the first probiotic to improve women’s health.

“Hearing from women about how probiotics have helped them is what has made this research so rewarding,” says Dr. Reid.

Discovering the breast tissue microbiome

Dr. Reid and his PhD student, Camilla Urbaniak, were the first to prove the existence of a breast tissue microbiome. They also confirmed the existence of beneficial bacteria in human milk.

“Research has shown that breastfeeding decreases a woman’s risk of breast cancer,” says Dr. Reid. “We wondered if beneficial bacteria in the milk might be playing a role and whether other types of bacteria could be influencing cancer development.”

Dr. Reid and his PhD student, Camilla Urbaniak, were the first to prove the existence of a breast tissue microbiome.

Comparing breast tissues from healthy women to those with breast cancer, they discovered bacteria in both, but it differed significantly. The bacteria from women with cancer were causing significant DNA damage, which can lead to the development of cancer. Meanwhile, the breast tissues from healthy women contained bacteria known to promote health and prevent cancer.

“Other studies have shown that probiotics can be ingested by women and reach the mammary gland,” explains Dr. Reid. “This raises the question of whether women, especially those at risk for breast cancer, should take probiotics to increase beneficial bacteria in the breast. With further research, this could create new options for patient care.”

Probiotics for healthy pregnancy and birth

  • Research has shown that lactobacilli are crucial to healthy conception and pregnancy.

  • With the human fetus exposed to bacteria in the womb and during vaginal birthing, a mother’s lactobacilli may be contributing to the baby’s healthy development.

  • Recent studies show that daily use of probiotics significantly reduces group B streptococci in the vagina, an organism that can be lethal to the baby.

  • “With a dramatic rise in C-sections and a drop in breastfeeding, newborns are not being fully exposed to beneficial bacteria from Mom,” says Dr. Reid. “Other bacteria can take their place, sometimes harmful ones that may contribute to long-term health problems. It’s important that we continue exploring probiotics as a potential solution.”

Beyond women’s health

In 2001, Dr. Reid helped establish the Canadian Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotic Research at St. Joseph’s Health Care London.

At the Centre, Dr. Jeremy Burton and his team study how the human microbiome influences urological health in men and women. In one of their largest studies, they are looking at the role of the microbiome in the formation of kidney stones. They are also investigating the microbiome’s effect on bladder and prostate cancer, as well as kidney transplants.

Meanwhile, Dr. Greg Gloor is further analyzing the human microbiome through next-generation DNA sequencing.

Known for its expertise, researchers from across health disciplines are partnering with the Centre to study the role of the microbiome on human health and disease.

Bringing probiotics to those in need

  • Dr. Reid has partnered with Western University‘s Western Heads East program and Yoba-for-Life to set up community kitchens in Tanzania, where local women produce probiotic yogurt.

  • Probiotic yogurt helps to boost energy, increase immunity and prevent diarrhea.

  • The goal is to reach one million Africans within five years.

Drs. Gregor Reid, Jeremy Burton and Greg Gloor are part of the Human Microbiome and Probiotics research program at Lawson. Drs. Reid and Gloor are Professors at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Dr. Burton holds the Miriam Burnett Chair in Urological Sciences and is an Assistant Professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

Read more:
Beneficial bacteria may protect against breast cancer

Understanding the vaginal microbiome essential to human health

Probiotics could improve survival rates in honey bees exposed to pesticide

2017 SRF Spotlight: Drs. Muriel Brackstone & Gregor Reid

Dr. Gregor Reid elected to Royal Society of Canada