Monday, 3 November 2014

Probiotics to counter heavy metal toxicity?

"In summary, this work has demonstrated the potential value of long-term probiotic-based interventions to counter mercury and arsenic exposure in vulnerable populations, particularly in pregnant women".
Sounds like an '80s man to me...

That was one of the primary conclusions reported by Jordan Bisanz and colleagues [1] (open-access) examining "at-risk populations of pregnant women and in children in Mwanza, Tanzania". The idea being that alongside the use of metal chelating medicines such as dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) and ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) indicated for 'acute' exposure to heavy metals, there may be other ways and means of treating heavy metal exposure over longer periods and where resources may not be as plentiful. Some media about this study can be seen here.

The Bisanz paper is open-access but a few pointers might be in order:

  • The study was based on the idea that certain strains of bacteria are known to have "an affinity for many toxic metals, including lead and cadmium" as documented in papers such as the one by Monachese and colleagues [2]. Further, that so-called "probiotic yogurt kitchens that service economically disadvantaged people" as a source of potentially beneficial bacteria are already working at the particular location selected by the study authors.
  • So, two studies were implemented: (a) looking at school-aged children (SAC) (initial N=44) randomised to receive either a probiotic yoghurt containing "1 × 1010 CFU Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 per 250 g" or "an equivalent portion of ultra-heat-treated milk as a control devoid of lactic acid bacteria" daily for 24 days; and (b) "60 pregnant women [PW] were recruited, of which 26 received a probiotic yogurt containing 1 × 1010 CFU L. rhamnosus GR-1 per 250 g and supplemented with 4.3 g of Moringa, a micronutrient-rich plant, to enhance maternal nutrition". The study entries in the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) database can be found here and here respectively. 
  • Analysis of blood metal levels ("blood lead, total mercury, total arsenic, and cadmium") were undertaken at enrolment and follow-up for all participants across the two studies. Analysis of fecal samples for children in study (a) was also undertaken pre- and post-intervention to test for any differences across the yoghurt vs. milk groups. Local fish were also analysed for heavy metal content to ascertain dietary exposure alongside dietary patterns of participants.
  • Results: there were quite a few... levels of heavy metals in SAC and PW studied were elevated compared to "levels present in a developed country (Canada)" somewhere in the order of over 6 times greater for lead and mercury. Children (SAC) were particularly vulnerable to an increased heavy metal burden. The authors noted: "Metal exposure from dietary fish intake likely explains why we saw elevated blood levels of mercury in both the SAC and PW groups".
  • "The studies provided the first positive evidence for the use of probiotics to combat toxic heavy metal exposure in vulnerable human populations". Well, sort of, is probably the best way that I can comment on this assertion, as the authors noted: "no statistically significant differences were detected in blood metal levels in SAC receiving the probiotic or milk control, although we noted that there was a weak trend of reduced blood levels of lead and arsenic". They did find that in the control group in receipt of milk, "blood levels of mercury and arsenic increased" between the testing occasions "but remained stable in the probiotic group". So concluding that levels of certain heavy metals didn't get any worse following the use of a probiotic is probably a more accurate way of looking at things.
  • Insofar as the gut bacteria analysis side of things: "Administration of the probiotic was not observed to have an effect on the gut bacterial community composition". But the authors did report that: "Elevated blood lead was associated with increases in Succinivibrionaceae and Gammaproteobacteria relative abundance levels in stool".

There are some important results to be derived from the Bisanz paper but not necessarily in the way that I think the authors hoped, bearing in mind this was a very short study limited to one specific probiotic strain. That being said, the idea that probiotics might have some kind of protective effect - "probiotic administration may be especially advocated at peak exposure times" - is an interesting one, worthy of quite a bit more investigation. 

I know discussions in certain quarters about the use of chelation therapy for certain conditions have the ability to furrow brows (see here). This despite the fact that when clinically indicated, chelation can provide some powerful results as demonstrated in the recent paper by Thurtle and colleagues [2] (open-access) on the use of oral DMSA for severe lead poisoning in Northern Nigeria. If we are to assume that certain types of bacteria might potentially be able to prevent or reduce uptake of something like heavy metals in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract from oral sources (i.e. food), I'd be minded to say that such inexpensive and potentially safer methods protecting against heavy metal poisoning, might be something to explore. And hopefully I'm talking out of turn when I mention some of the literature on lead and mercury exposure when it comes to autism (see here) as another possible avenue for more formal investigation.

Next up: probiotics and influenza anyone? (With the need for a lot more research and certainly nothing like medical or clinical advice given or intended by me on this topic).

Music then. Domino by Jessie J.


[1] Bisanz JE. et al. Randomized Open-Label Pilot Study of the Influence of Probiotics and the Gut Microbiome on Toxic Metal Levels in Tanzanian Pregnant Women and School Children. mBio. 2014. 7 October.

[2] Thurtle N. et al. Description of 3,180 Courses of Chelation with Dimercaptosuccinic Acid in Children ≤5 y with Severe Lead Poisoning in Zamfara, Northern Nigeria: A Retrospective Analysis of Programme Data. PLoS Medicine. 2014; 11: e1001739.

----------- Jordan E. Bisanz, Megan K. Enos, Joseph R. Mwanga, John Changalucha, Jeremy P. Burton, Gregory B. Gloor, & Gregor Reid (2014). Randomized Open-Label Pilot Study of the Influence of Probiotics and the Gut Microbiome on Toxic Metal Levels in Tanzanian Pregnant Women and School Children mBio : 10.1128/mBio.01580-14