Can a cup of yogurt cure your case of COVID-19?

Can a cup of probiotic yogurt help save the lives of people with COVID-19? Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev say they have identified molecules in kefir yogurt that are effective in treating various inflammatory conditions, including “cytokine storms” caused by COVID-19. Kefir is a fermented beverage made by inoculating cow’s or goat’s milk with mixtures of microorganisms, such as yeast and bacteria. A cytokine storm is when the body’s immune system becomes overloaded and attacks itself, one of the leading causes of death in COVID-19 patients. The research was conducted by Ph.D. student Orit Malka and Prof. Raz Jelinek, Vice President and Dean of Research and Development at BGU. It was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Microbiome. The Jerusalem Post that several years before the coronavirus pandemic, Malka noticed that yogurt had a therapeutic effect and began studying it in Jelinek’s laboratory. Together they identified molecules in yogurt that had dramatic antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. “One of the main reasons people die from COVID is the cytokine storm,” explained Jelinek. “Cytokines are immune molecules designed to help the body fight invaders like viruses. But under certain circumstances, and scientists don’t know exactly why, the body goes into a kind of overdrive and secretes many cytokines, so many that it kills you. That is what happens during COVID. “We knew we had found these molecules in yogurt with anti-inflammatory properties,” Jelinek continued. “So when COVID started, we said, let’s see if these molecules can help against cytokine storms.”

Jelinek and Malka induced cytokine storms in mice. Then they saw what happened: the mice that suffered the storm and were not treated died. But the mice that were treated with the molecules they found in the yogurt made a full recovery. The molecules not only cleared the cytokine storm, but they also restored balance to the immune system. “This was really remarkable,” Jelinek said. The scientists said they also administered the molecules to the mice through their mouths – they were placed in water and entered the mice’s digestive systems like a normal drink. During the pandemic, Jelinek and Malka had hoped to be able to administer these molecules to critically ill patients, but Jelinek said regulatory hurdles delayed the process and were unsuccessful. Now, your next step is to run clinical trials with other cytokine storms. “Cytokine storms don’t just happen with COVID,” Jelinek said. “This is a very bad condition with very little treatment against it.” The researchers are in the final stage of forming a start-up company under the umbrella of BGN Technologies for further development and commercialization of the technology. Jelinek said the company should formally start in the coming weeks and then they will raise funds to conduct clinical trials. His hope is that testing can begin in a few months. However, the path from the lab to the table is likely to be a long one, even though these molecules come from the yogurt that people can eat every day. Jelinek said that they will be considered a drug and therefore will need to undergo full scrutiny of any new drugs before receiving approval. As such, he said they are likely to also take the molecules in another direction at the same time, as a food additive, probiotic or supplement, which would speed up the approval process. Jelinek noted that he and Malka did other experiments with kefir and that they were also able to show that the molecules have the potential to fight pathogenic bacteria. Specifically, they showed that the molecules could significantly reduce the virulence of the cholera-causing agent. “This is the first demonstration that the virulence of human pathogenic bacteria can be mitigated by molecules secreted in probiotic dairy products, such as yogurt or kefir,” Jelinek said. “I don’t think there were any molecular mechanisms that people knew for sure had a therapeutic effect. Now we know.”

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