The novel approach, spearheaded by researchers at Rutgers University in the US, aims to create gut friendly bacteria that are able to produce the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene directly in the gut of deficient people.
Led by Professor Loredana Quadro, the team have now modified a strain of E. coli bacteria to produce beta-carotene - something that is the first step on the path towards creating a human probiotic able to battle vitamin A deficiency.
"What we did in the paper was establish a proof of principle," explained Professor Paul Breslin, a co-author of the study. Breslin told NutraIngredients that the research was conducted in mice, and did not use a human probiotic strain but a 'mouse friendly' variant of E. coli.
"We established that we could generate a bacteria that could make beta-carotene, we could put it in to the intestine of a mouse, it would make beta-carotene there, and that this would get across the intestinal lumen and in to the tissues of the mouse."
Quadro said the current research is an important step toward figuring out how human-friendly bacteria can be engineered to produce high levels of beta-carotene within the human gut.
“The next step is to engineer a human-friendly probiotic strain that will be capable of producing high levels of beta-carotene,” said project leader Professor Loredana Quadro.
“The long-term goal of our work is to translate this approach into a microorganism that will be human-friendly and will allow us to move from a mouse model system to humans, to actually fight vitamin A deficiency,” she said.
The vitamin A problem
Breslin explained that until now the work has been funded by a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "as something that was trying to tackle a major world health problem in vitamin A deficiency, which affects hundreds of millions of people at some level and kills millions - many of them children."
"Our original idea was: If you could get a gut friendly bacteria to live in your gut and colonise it, that was capable of making beta-carotene, then all you would have to do is give people basically one hit of this in the developing world, and if it colonised them then they would be good to go for months or maybe even longer," said the Rutgers professor. "That could really help to remediate vitamin A deficiency."