Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev claim to have discovered molecules in Kefir yoghurt that can cure a variety of inflammatory disorders, including “cytokine storms” triggered by COVID-19.
Kefir is a fermented beverage produced by inoculating cow’s or goat’s milk with microorganism mixtures including yeast and bacteria. One of the leading causes of death in COVID-19 patients is a cytokine storm, which occurs when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive and destroys itself.
The study was carried out by Ph.D. student Orit Malka and Prof. Raz Jelinek, BGU’s vice president and dean of Research and Development. It was published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Microbiome.
According to Jelinek, many years before the coronavirus pandemic, Malka found that yoghurt had a medicinal potential and began researching it in Jelinek’s lab. They discovered molecules in yoghurt that had powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.
“One of the main reasons people die of COVID is the cytokine storm,” Jelinek explained. “Cytokines are immune molecules that are designed to help the body fight invaders like viruses. But in certain circumstances – and scientists don’t know exactly why – the body goes into a sort of overdrive and secretes many cytokines, so many that it kills you. That is what happens during COVID.
“We knew that 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 watched what happened.
The mice that had the storm and were not treated died. But the mice that were treated with the molecules they found in the yogurt had a complete recovery. The molecules not only eliminated the cytokine storm, but also restored balance to the immune system.
“This was really remarkable,” Jelinek said.
According to the scientists, the molecules were often delivered to the mice through their mouths – they were placed in water and penetrated the mice’s digestive tracts much as any other drink.
During the pandemic, Jelinek and Malka hoped to prescribe these molecules to critically ill patients, but bureaucratic obstacles slowed the procedure, and they were unable to do so. The researchers’ next move will be to run clinical trials for other cytokine storms.
“Cytokine storms don’t only happen with COVID,” Jelinek said. “This is a very bad condition with really very few treatments against it.”
The researchers are nearing the end of the process of developing a start-up company under the BGN Technologies umbrella to further improve and commercialise the technology. Jelinek stated that the company would officially launch within the next few weeks, after which they will collect funds to perform clinical trials. His expectation is that trials will begin within a few months.
However, even if these molecules come from yoghurt that people will consume every day, the journey from the lab to the table is likely to be lengthy. According to Jelinek, they will be classified as a prescription and will therefore be subjected to the same rigors testing as any other experimental medication before being approved.
As a result, he believes they will take the molecules in another direction at the same time – as a dietary ingredient, probiotic, or supplement, which will speed up the acceptance process.
Jelinek stated that he and Malka conducted further tests with the Kefir and were able to demonstrate that the molecules had the ability to combat pathogenic bacteria. They demonstrated that the molecules could greatly decrease the virulence of the cholera causative agent.
“This is the first demonstration that virulence of human pathogenic bacteria can be mitigated by molecules secreted in probiotic milk products, such as yogurt or kefir,” Jelinek said. “I don’t think there were any molecular mechanisms that people knew for sure would have a therapeutic effect. Now we know.”