Seeking out clinically tested probiotics: an interview with Rod Velliquette

The human body is filled with microorganisms of many kinds. Although many microorganisms drive disease as pathogens, many more provide plentiful health benefits. To maximize these benefits, companies have isolated microbes from our bodies and formulated them as pills or supplemented foods with them. These efforts led to LGG being the first robust probiotic developed for its numerous health benefits.

But LGG is not the only microbe out there. Many more bacterial species may procure health benefits to consumers. Among these species are those within the next generation of probiotics, such as those classified within the Akkermansia and Faecalibacterium genera. But with the many microbial species being developed and sold, how can we know which probiotics are the best for our health? Such a broad question comes with substantial time and effort just to begin answering this question.

And that’s where people like Dr. Rod Velliquette come in. As Senior Manager of Global Microbiome Research & Development at iHealth, Rod has vast experience being diligent with his efforts to develop new probiotics with the bacteria that live in our bodies, especially the ones living in our guts. As such, he is more than equipped to speak about the process of developing new probiotics.

Read to learn more about new probiotics and how you can figure out which probiotic is best for your needs.

PN: Let’s begin by talking about where Culturelle began: LGG. What is LGG, and what made it such an attractive probiotic?

RV: The scientific name of LGG is Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus GG, LGG®. The microbe is a non-spore forming rod-shaped microbe that appears in chains. The species was first discovered in the intestinal tract of a healthy human by Sherwood Gorbach and Barry Goldwin. Since its discovery, the microbe has become the most scientifically characterized probiotic spanning 37 years.

LGG has multiple health benefits. Taking LGG reduces how long diarrhea lasts in children. People who take LGG also see a reduced occurrence of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. LGG has documented benefits for adults too. For instance, LGG consumption is associated with improved cognitive performance among older adults. Much of these benefits stem from the probiotic’s ability to adhere to the intestinal mucosa, enhance function in the epithelial barrier, positively modulate the immune system and prevent pathogens from growing in the gut.

PN: LGG almost seems like a magic probiotic for the gut. Do you think you will find another LGG as you develop other probiotics? Why or why not?

As we built the Culturelle brand, we at iHealth were among the first companies to recognize the potential that LGG had. The Culturelle brand worked hard to get exclusivity with the manufacturers which helped to develop the brand it is today. Everyone saw the microbe as an ideal probiotic. We gravitated toward the microbe for its slew of benefits, and now everyone wants a piece of LGG.

But that was back then.  Now, as we’ve seen with the Microbiome Movement conference, hundreds of bacteria species and strains offer so many different benefits. It’s because of this massive explosion of the gut microbiome and probiotic science that I don’t expect to see this much scientific focus on another probiotic like we did with LGG. As a result, we’ve begun investigating next-generation probiotics or microbiome-modulating ingredients that provide vast benefits as LGG did.

PN: Now that you’re searching for another microbial strain as a possible probiotic, what do you look for in your research?

RV: Of course, one of the biggest factors we look for is whether the science backs the claims being made for a given microbe. In the literature, we would look for robust and repeatable data for a given strain. We would also give priority to clinical studies and systematic reviews as they provide the strongest totality of evidence for a microbe’s capacity as a probiotic.

Nonetheless, the science isn’t the only factor we look at when developing a probiotic-based solution. We must also examine whether the probiotic is commercially viable. To that end, we would see whether the probiotic can be cultured and grown easily in the lab and scaled up. We would also ask whether the microbe has a long shelf life and can survive all the manufacturing steps. All this would be a lengthy process because we would also have to determine whether refining the microbe’s growth conditions would be a worthwhile venture.

PN: That sounds like a substantial effort! I would surmise that pouring through the research represents a big part of what you do when you conduct due diligence.

RV: Oh, yes. Developing a probiotic is a timely process that requires one who knows how to evaluate the literature scientifically. I would begin by poring  through the literature to see what  we already know.  Once I have identified strong candidates, I need to understand whether there is a commercially available source. Then I would speak with multiple companies to parse through the clinical studies in progress for the probiotic of interest. In these conversations, I would ask what’s coming up next, which microbes are the most promising probiotics, and whether manufacturers have learned about their potential. From there, I can help decide which companies we should partner with, and which sets of microbiome solutions we could develop.

PN: Amid your due diligence efforts, I imagine you’re also looking for red flags that would keep you away from some prospective partners. What are some of these red flags?

RV: So first off, many manufacturers have probiotics on their shelves with all kinds of bold and outlandish claims. Many of the probiotics in the market only provide you a species-level definition or description on their labels.  Yet as we’ve seen through the conference, the benefits are strain specific. So, when a company provides a species-level identification for a product, they could have included one, tens, or even hundreds of different strains within it, which means there is no quality control.

A consumer might ask what’s so concerning about this. Think of it like this, the naming (taxonomy) of bacteria is like the naming of animals.  At a genus level, you have Lacticaseibacillus which is like saying Canis (such as wolves, dogs, coyotes, and golden jackals) in the animal world.  Next, you have species, rhamnosus, which is like saying Lupus (or Wolf). Lastly, you have Strain identification, which would beGG (Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus GG).  In the animal kingdom, the strain level would be like calling a dog a St. Bernard (Canis Lupus St. Bernard). I think most people would say a St. Bernard has very different skills, behaviors, and abilities than a Chihuahua.  And that’s why strain matters. So, if a product on the market doesn’t identify the strain they’re using, I would place a big red flag on its claims.

Another red flag I would look for is whether any health claims are backed by the scientific literature. A lot of companies, even those that identify the strain they use, make bold claims about their probiotics without regulatory approval. They may also make claims that the body of research available simply does not support. In both instances, I would be careful to buy any product if they make seemingly impossible claims or drug like claims.

PN: I’m comforted to hear that there are things we can look for when we evaluate a probiotic for use. Aside from looking for these red flags, what else can we do when deciding on a probiotic to eat?

RV: There are a lot of things consumers and other stakeholders can do to be well-informed about probiotics. Yes, reading the literature can be an intimidating prospect, and it’s really not an realistic option for consumers. But a layperson can still be well-informed. Talking to your doctor and speaking with gastroenterologists and other specialists would be a good place to start. I would also recommend you get your information from trusted authorities like The International Probiotics Association (IPA) and International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). In addition you can check out well-established public health authorities such as Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School who regularly speak about nutrition-related topics including probiotics. At the end of the day, do your best to educate yourself using trusted sources.


  • Paul Naphtali

    Paul Naphtali is the founder of GenoWrite, a life sciences communications company. He holds an MSc in Biology and went through the PhD program in Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, both at McMaster University. Before GenoWrite, he created Microbe Musings out of a passion for communicating microbiology research to diverse audiences around the globe and from all walks of life.

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