Data is driving development at Carbiotix. The company, which focuses on gut-health testing and associated treatments, has been amassing information on the function of bacteria in the digestive system and how these are affected by food and supplements.
About 18 months have passed since it launched its microbiome diagnostics platform. During this time, Carbiotix has analysed more than 2,000 samples. From these, it has determined that it’s not necessarily how many different kinds of good bacteria (probiotics) are in the body that are the basis for good gut health, but rather the presence of key species and, most of all, metabolites: substances that can be used to indicate what is going on with an individual’s metabolism.
In fact, metabolites are described by Carbiotix’s CEO, Kristofer Cook, as the “apex of the gut health pyramid.”
“We don’t really believe that it’s [gut bacteria] diversity that’s the defining factor [of gut health],” he tells Food Spark. “It’s more the activity of certain species and the productions of the key metabolites, which is the end-all determinant of gut health and will ultimately trigger the onset of different metabolic and chronic diseases.”
Carbiotix’s diagnostics platform can give a measurement of whether a specific food or supplement benefits the growth and stability of a person’s good bacteria and the production of core metabolites. For it to have any real meaning, however, consumers are required to provide multiple samples.
“You can’t simply take one sample and draw conclusions from the sample,” says Cook. “There’s too much noise or natural variability to understand the underlying gut health.”
Instead, he believes longitudinal data is the only useful way to develop an understanding of how particular products affect an individual’s microbiome (the community of microbes in the body), tracking changes over six sequential tests.
“And the only way to facilitate that would be to bring down the cost,” he adds.
Partnering with food companies
Carbiotix’s £29 test kit is significantly cheaper than similar ones on the market – Atlas Biomed, for example, costs £139 a pop. Going forward, it hopes to reduce the price still further.
But Cook says the company has taken a strategic decision to move out of direct-to-consumer sales. Instead, they are looking to form partnerships with food companies and nutraceutical manufacturers, helping them to assess the impact of their products.
At the beginning of June, Carbiotix announced that it was teaming up with TrooFoods to offer consumers the opportunity to track how the brand’s range was affecting individuals’ gut health. Troo, which recently launched a co-branded range with Holland & Barrett, specialises in products with prebiotics (essentially food for beneficial bacteria).
Collaborations like this, according to Cook, benefit Carbiotix, consumers and, of course, the companies themselves.
“For us, this is about collecting data, it’s about helping these companies formulate better products and build brand loyalty, it’s about connecting the science of the microbiome to the actual commercial or transaction process, so customers of these companies can see what are the impacts of these products,” he explains.
Nutraceuticals is the obvious route into market for products that claim to assess and improve gut health, but Cook says that food may be a more viable way of improving the microbiome.
“Our firm belief is that nutraceuticals are interesting, but if people can eat their way into a healthy gut, it’s a much better means – and enjoyable way – of improving underlying gut health,” he says. “Food should be the vehicle for improved gut health, rather than a nutraceutical. That’s my personal belief.”
One of the key ways to affect gut health is believed to be ingestion of prebiotic fibre – something Brits often lack in their diet.
Companies like Troo offering fibre-enriched prebiotic products are limited, and the market for prebiotics is currently a lot smaller than that for probiotics, so there’s plenty of space for growth.
Carbiotix has its own second-generation fibre ingredient, dubbed Axos, which Cook describes as “highly relevant” for the food and beverage space. They are currently in the process of moving forward with commercialisation.
Problems with personalisation
Each individual is likely to react differently to products that affect gut health – it’s one of the reasons for the six tests mentioned above. Personalisation is essential, but it’s also incredible difficult to give wide-ranging recommendations given the current state of scientific knowledge.
“The science is very immature, there is a natural variability component, we’re just getting into the realm of understanding baseline gut health,” notes Cook, who points out that many companies typically have four recommendations: eat more prebiotics, eat more probiotics, eat polyphenols and exercise.
“If everyone does that, of course their underlying gut health will improve, but it’s not a personalised experience by any means.”
He adds that Carbiotix’s data suggests only about 25% of the population get a short-term positive effect from non-specific use of prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics (a combination of prebiotic and probiotic substances), with some research suggesting that taking certain external probiotics could actually inhibit growth of key cornerstone species – though he stresses that these findings are preliminary.
Instead, Cook says that dosing is a feasible way of giving individualised recommendations at the moment. Taking cereals as an example, companies could advise intake of between one and two bowls based on the individual and the data collected about them. That way, the product can be standardised but the dosing can be personalised.
The key to the future of gut health is education and addressing eating habits, according to Cook, though perhaps the best strategy is to create a product that allows people to better utilise the fibre already in their diet. Changing behavioural patterns, after all, is challenging. Getting people eating more fibre through different platforms, from processed food to fruit, grains and seeds, will be secondary.
“I think it will be a slow start,” admits Cook, adding that research is mostly correlative, not so much cause and effect. For instance, poor gut health may be linked to mental or bodily well-being, but there is no direct mechanism, and so it cannot be clearly demonstrated to consumers what exactly a product directed at the microbiome is actually doing.
“As the science evolves in academia and we’re able to ascertain or determine more cause-effect relationships between poor gut health and different chronic and metabolic conditions, then I think you’ll have a better understanding in the general population that these issues have to be managed,” he concludes.