SA professor leads innovative research in microbiology field

“If people keep their gut and brain happy – all the other functions in-between will work optimally. Life is that simple.” This is according to Professor Leon Dicks, microbiology and probiotic specialist at the Stellenbosch University, who was recently awarded with the University of Stellenbosch’s Chancellor’s medal for sustained excellence, as well as the Vice-Rector’s award: Research and Innovation award for scientific papers published in high-ranking journals.

He says recent studies that have also shown that a happy gut supports a healthy mentality.

Professor Dicks says that he decided to focus his research on this very specific group of bacteria, which are generally regarded as safe, because this group plays a huge role in keeping the microbiota in the gastro-intestinal tract in a well-balanced state. “When all these friendly and hard-working microbes are put into the form of a tablet (called a probiotic) – the whole body’s functioning can be enhanced.”

Humans are essentially a walking bag of bacteria – our guts are home to billions of bacteria (microflora), both good and bad, he says. “It is therefore vital that people maintain the balance of microflora in order to strike overall health as an imbalance in gut flora could lead to various digestive disturbances.”

Normal flora which colonises the gut is involved in various bodily functions including: vitamin production (e.g. lactic acid bacteria produce certain B-vitamins); preventing pathogens from adhering to adhesion sites on the gut; boosting immunity and stimulating the production of natural antibodies; the detoxification processes and; gut microbiota are known to influence energy balance.

When the gut flora becomes imbalanced a release of toxic metabolic products is induced and may be followed by conditions/discomfort including: flatulence, bloating, intestinal pain and inflammation, cramping, constipation and diarrhoea. Literature indicates that an imbalance in gut flora should be considered as a contributing factor in conditions such as: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr Pieta Serfontein, Medical Executive at Cipla SA, states that this type of research into probiotic strains enables Cipla to enhance the development of suitable probiotics for the South-African market. “Cipla will be launching a new innovative line extension to the existing entiro™ probiotic range, called entiro™ FastMelt, a first of its kind for South-Africa. It will be packaged in sachets and the powder dissolves instantly in the consumer’s mouth, making it very easy to consume.”

Professor Dicks states that it is important to remain relevant and updated with information in the field of microbiology. “Microorganisms are basic life forms with well-kept secrets forgotten by, or unknown to, us ignorant higher life forms. We share the same genetic building blocks as these organisms and we are exposed to the same chemicals and environmental conditions. Changes that affect us as humans do not affect microbial cells in the exact same way and that is why it is interesting to explore how these cells have already developed a way to deal with the challenges. We need to explore their world to find out how these cells deal with life and the challenges that are thrown at them so that we can learn how to better handle these challenges ourselves.”

He says that he continues his research in microbiology to learn their language, understand why they are so successful, find out what more they have to offer and ultimately how to use microbiomes to fight diseases and malnutrition.

Prof Dicks developed the strains for the Cipla probiotic entiro™ based on award-winning research.


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