Health and Wellness

A performance-enhancing pill based on the gut bacteria of elite athletes is in the works

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New research out Monday has identified a special type of gut bacteria found in elite athletes that may play a role in boosting their performance during rigorous exercise — and it could lead to a probiotic-like supplement that "regular joes" could use to enhance their performance in a few years. 

"The future of fitness is here and it's something that we're rapidly developing," Jonathan Scheiman, former Harvard postdoctoral fellow and CEO and co-founder of FitBiomics, tells CNBC Make It. "We want to translate this into consumer products to promote health and wellness [to the masses]."

The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine by 17 researchers, including Scheiman, found that, after they exercise, marathon runners and endurance athletes have higher levels of a bacteria called Veillonella in their digestive microbiomes (the unique colonies of bacteria that exist in your body) as compared to inactive individuals.

Researchers then isolated a strain of Veillonella from a marathon runner and inserted it into the colons of lab mice — they found the mice given Veillonella ran 13% longer on a treadmill compared to mice who were not given the bacteria.

"It might not seem like a huge number, but I definitely think its biologically significant and certainly if you ask a marathon runner, if they could increase their running ability by 13% — I think that they will be generally interested," Aleksandar Kostic, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of microbiology at the Joslin Diabetes Center tells CNBC Make It.

The group later did a second analysis of 87 ultra-marathoners and Olympic-trial rowers and found similarly high levels of Veillonella. It appears that Veillonella works by feeding of off lactic acid, a compound produced in the muscles during exercise. The bacteria then turns into a compound called propionate (a common short-chain fatty acid), which may aid in boosting one's athletic performance, researchers say.

While there's much more research to be done (the concept hasn't been tested on humans yet), Scheiman left Harvard a little more than a year ago after working on the study for four years to launch FitBiomics with several study co-authors from Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

His team at the New York-based early stage start-up (which is venture funded and also has a slew of private investors) is currently developing a prototype of a probiotic supplement containing Veillonella from elite athletes for commercial use. He says it will most likely be purified into a supplement that can be used in a variety of food and beverage formats.

However, he has no firm timetable on when he expects the products will be ready for human trials. "Science takes time. Since its a probiotic, we're not necessarily reinventing the wheel here, we're just sort of disrupting and evolving it," he says. "Obviously, we want to do human studies but I think the future of fitness is here."

Dr. Rabia De Latour, assistant professor of Gastroenterology medicine at New York University School of Medicine, says while the study is "really interesting," the jury is still out as to whether this study can be recreated in humans to enhance exercise.

"[The study] shines a light on something that we all know — that the microbiome is extremely important but we don't fully understand it yet," De Latour says.

However, she says that the microbiome does play a much larger role in our health and well-being than we previously thought.

"In the past few years, studies found that transplanting stool from a donor to a recipient suffering from a Clostridium difficile infection (a bad infectious bacteria) helped to keep his 'bad' bacteria at bay. This discovery was groundbreaking," she says.

The discovery, she adds, prompted many scientists and physicians to begin testing what else can be achieved by manipulating bacteria in the microbiome.

However, more research needs to be done on fecal transplants as earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration issued a safety alert over the use of fecal transplants after one recipient died. The treatment has not been approved by the FDA yet.

Kostic, who has equity in FitBiomics, says that with Veillonella, the overall goal goes beyond helping people increase stamina during workouts.

"What we envision is a probiotic supplement that people can take that will increase their ability to do meaningful exercise and therefore protect them against chronic diseases including diabetes," he says.

According to Scheiman, FitBiomics made no contributions to fund the current study and the research was done solely for academic purposes. The study was funded by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard and the National Institutes of Health.

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