University College Cork is the location of the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC), whose mission is to investigate gastrointestinal science in its broadest sense. Key interests include the link between gut health and psychiatry, the metagenomics of gut flora, the relationship between the immune system and the gut, and mining gut flora for biomarkers and drugs.
GlaxoSmithKline, one of APC’s industrial partners, is currently pursuing a number of new targets discovered by its researchers at the center. Professor Fergus Shanahan, APC’s director, says that big pharma is beginning to show a real interest in gut flora and its impact on health in areas such as diabetes.
Work on germ-free (lacking gut flora) animals has been particularly revealing, he adds. These animals have poor immunity and are susceptible to stress. Studies have shown that healthy gut flora is essential for development of the immune system.
Studies of gut microflora were crude in the past, but now molecular approaches such as metagenomics allow for microflora fingerprinting and monitoring of how the community of gut microbes varies between individuals and throughout the lifespan.
“Childhood and old age are the critical times for establishing and maintaining healthy gut microflora,” says Prof. Shanahan. “If you know the molecular basis for the health of the microbiome of the gut, you can do something about it.”
There are many practical outcomes from these studies. For instance, gut microbes are important in metabolism, and they also produce bioactives such as short chain fatty acids that have anticancer properties and play a role in cardiovascular health.
The APC’s second industrial partner, Alimentary Health, was founded in 1999 from research into probiotics at University College Cork. “The breadth of knowledge there gave us a great platform to build from,” explains Jennifer Roper, Ph.D., IP and clinical trials director. The company is developing therapeutic commensal gut bacteria (probiotics) for general wellness and GI therapeutics—namely for UC, Crohn’s disease, IBS, and C. difficile infection.
Alimentary Health’s flagship product Align®, a capsule containing Bifantis®, a probiotic in the form of dried live bacteria, is being marketed by Procter & Gamble for maintaining a healthy digestive system. The company is also conducting research into pharmaceutical treatments for IBS and other inflammatory conditions.
Alimentary Health’s collaborations with APC are focused on the mechanisms and mode of action of probiotics. It is building a strain bank for GI applications, focusing on chronic inflammatory disease. It is also looking at the components of the bacteria, including thuricin, a narrow-spectrum antibacterial product that is being developed for treating C. difficile.