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Israeli lab ‘cures’ mice of COVID-style inflammation using yogurt molecules

Researchers say probiotics have antibacterial properties, as well as preventing inflammation, could be used as basis for drugs of the future

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: Kefir grains, used to make the yoghurt drink kefir, above a glass of the drink (ThitareeSarmkasat via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Kefir grains, used to make the yoghurt drink kefir, above a glass of the drink (ThitareeSarmkasat via iStock by Getty Images)

An Israeli lab has “cured” mice suffering from an immune reaction like that found in serious coronavirus patients, using molecules from probiotic yoghurt.

The lab triggered a cytokine storm — the immune reaction that causes the extreme inflammations suffered by many serious COVID-19 patients — in dozens of mice.

“We induced aggressive cytokine storms in mice, akin to those of COVID-19 patients who are in very critical condition, and healed 100 percent of those that received the molecules,” Prof. Raz Jelinek of Ben Gurion University told The Times of Israel. “But the other mice all died within two to three days of the cytokine storm being induced.

“Among those who received the molecules, clinical conditions and clinical markers improved to normal levels, and they lived. If it turns out that this could be given to critical people, and have the same effect, that would be wonderful.”

Inflammation in human lungs, like that caused by a cytokine storm (sompong_tom via iStock by Getty Images)

The cytokine storm research is one of a string of experiments conducted by Jelinek, his PhD student Orit Malka, and their colleagues, after they identified two molecules in a fermented milk drink called kefir that they say deliver major therapeutic benefits and could be used to make drugs of the future.

“The research leads us to believe that we can make drugs and therapeutics based on these molecules that are extracted from yoghurt,” he said. “They will utilize both the anti-inflammatory qualities of the molecules, that fight the cytokine storm, and antibacterial qualities that we identified.”

Microbiome expert Eran Segal, who has expressed skepticism for popular claims promoting probiotics, said the new research is a “step forward” elevating the discussion by providing peer-reviewed scientific insights.

“The fact that they found molecules that are relevant is definitely plausible and could be important,” said Segal, a Weizmann Institute computational biologist who was not connected to the study, adding that he takes seriously the claim that they could form the basis of drugs.

“This could be a source of future therapeutics,” he said.

Prof. Raz Jelinek of Ben Gurion University (courtesy of Ben Gurion University)

Probiotics, from yoghurt or in pill form, are often lauded for their health value, but there is limited hard evidence to back up claims, little understanding of how exactly they may work, and conflicting clinical results. So, four years ago Jelinek’s lab started to see whether they could document particular benefits. They made their own kefir, ensuring it had very high levels of a particular probiotic yeast, and started analyzing it on a molecular level.

“After years of research we succeeded in identifying two molecules that have very unusual therapeutic qualities,” said Jelinek. “This is one of the most concrete cases of scientists outlining a molecular mechanism by which probiotic foods have good health benefits.”

He said his findings, and hopes for probiotic-based drugs, are limited at this point to the specific molecules he identified in his kefir. However, he believes they suggest that some of the health claims associated with probiotic foods may be valid.

Some of his experiments focused on the anti-inflammatory qualities of the molecules, which are thought to have caused the improvement in the mice with cytokine storms, while others focused on the question of whether the molecules can help fight bacteria.

Illustrative: A researcher examining a bacterial culture plate (iStock)

The bacterial aspect of the research has just been published in the peer-reviewed journal Microbiome, and a Ben Gurion’s business arm BGN Technologies has established a startup to explore the potential for commercializing the molecules.

“We found that there is an antibacterial mechanism, and that the way it works is that the molecules actually block bacteria from communicating with each other. In other words, they block an essential part of how bacteria become virulent inside the human body,” said Jelinek.

“This is important because [it] offers new potential for fighting bacteria. and because the mechanism doesn’t risk bacteria becoming resistant to it, as they do to many antibiotics,” he added.

“While antibiotic resistance is a real problem, these molecules don’t directly attack bacteria, but rather block the communication between them, meaning that the bacteria won’t have [a] chance to develop resistance mechanisms,” Jelinek said.

“In confronting antibiotic resistance, this could prove important.”

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