Researchers show prebiotics can reduce severity of colitis

MSU researchers have discovered that the use of a prebiotic might help reduce the occurrence of certain kinds of cancer.

May 31, 2012

Jenifer Fenton

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) have shown that a prebiotic may help the body's natural killer cells fight bacterial infection and reduce inflammation, greatly decreasing the risk of colon cancer.

Prebiotics are fiber supplements that serve as food for the trillions of tiny bacteria living in the gut. When taken, they can stimulate the growth of good bacteria. The evolution of prebiotic supplements (as well as probiotics, which are actual bacteria ingested into the system) provide new therapeutic avenues for researchers and physicians.

In research published in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of NutritionMSU AgBioResearch scientist Jenifer Fenton reports that mice given the prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharide, or GOS, saw the severity of their colitis (one of the main forms of inflammatory bowel disease) significantly reduced.

In fact, the mice fed GOS – a synthetic compound that is known to stimulate beneficial bacteria and is found in foods such as biscuits and infant formula – saw a 50 percent reduction in colitis.

Research has shown that certain types of foods and fibers can reduce colon cancer risk, said Fenton, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

"There is something unique about certain types of fibers, such as GOS, and how they alter cells and influence the immune system to change disease risk, either for the good or the bad," she said. "Our overall goal is to identify either dietary patterns or diet components to reduce inflammation and cancer risk. In this case, we used prebiotics to stimulate changes in bacteria in the gut that may have a beneficial impact on the colon."

Fenton worked closely on the project with MSU AgBioResearch scientist Elizabeth Gardner, an associate professor in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition who previously looked at the role that diet plays in fighting off the flu. In applying some of the lessons learned in those studies to mice with bacterially induced colitis, the researchers found that mice given GOS had significantly less inflammation and fewer abnormal cells -- two precursors for colon cancer.

It appeared, Fenton said, that the positive results were linked to the significant enhancement of the body's natural killer cells, which are found in the immune system and crucial in fighting off new infections in the body.

"Our results suggest that GOS may be effective in reducing colitis severity by priming the innate immune system," she said. “The next step is to verify how that mechanism works. Finding that link could help researchers apply the lessons learned to other intestinal ailments.”

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