Quite how probiotics works in humans, and how we can take advantage of increased knowledge of the role of such good bacteria is one of the big growth areas for medicine according to Gregor Reid.
The professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics was recently in New Zealand to pick up a distinguished alumni prize at Massey University. (A more full explanation of his views and hopes for probiotics can be found here)
Much of his research has been around vaginal flora, and understanding how the 'good' lactobacilli crowd out less desirable organisms. Flora Restore is a retail product to provide such probiotics, but Reid himself had nothing to do with its commercialisation.
He says probiotic and prebiotic (stimulating the growth of beneficial organisms) research is growing all around the world. Some of its initial impetus was based on the study of long-lived Bulgarians, and the finding that their diets contained many fermented food products.
Reflecting modern day diets, and the increasing use of antibiotics, Reid asks that if we're not eating fermented foods, where is it that modern humans are getting their probiotic bacteria from in the first place?
"In the past 100 years, we've dramatically changed the flora of the human gut, yet we're not sure what organisms we need for good health," he says.
He says there's some studies showing obesity correlating to changes in intestinal micro-organisms. Animal studies have also shown delays to the onset of diabetes through the use of probiotics. Reid expects to see therapies in the near future based on altering peoples' microflora.
"We're at the start now of a revolution around which microbiotics are the best for longterm health," says Reid. "We really are uncovering an unbelievable array of organisms that are associated with health."
Reid's keen on food being used as a vehicle, and promotion, of probiotics - as long as the efficacy of the product has been demonstrated in clinical trials.
The USA for example has some 300 so-called probiotic foods (mostly yoghurts), but there's only 10 or so that have been proven to work.
He says there's no reason NZ researchers shouldn't be involved in probiotic research, and that products based on such research should come out of this country.