As a result of more than 20 years of research by the University of Tartu scientists, the Lactobacillus fermentum ME-3 has made its way to pharmacies in Estonia. Over the last 15 years, ME-3 that is added to Tere dairy products has become known in Estonia as the ‘Hellus bacterium’.
Before arriving on sale in the pharmacies of Estonia, ME-3 capsules were already sold in Australia, Great Britain and Italy. ME-3 bacteria are also added to the dietary supplement Reg’Activ Cholesterol, which contributes to the maintenance of normal cholesterol levels, and is sold in 11 countries. In the newly available capsules, however, the bacteria are in their pure and concentrated form: each capsule contains eight billion bacteria ofLactobacillus fermentum ME-3, discovered in 1995 in the intestinal tract of a Tartu child.
Professor Emerita at the University of Tartu (UT) Marika Mikelsaar, who together with UT Professor of Medical Biochemistry Mihkel Zilmer led the workgroup who discovered the ME-3 bacterium, went to the pharmacy at Tartu University Hospital to witness her 20-year-old dream come true.
“At every conference, interesting speakers are asked what their dream is. Scientists always answer that they dream of their discovery being taken into use,” said Marika Mikelsaar. She admitted that just like with every fundamental research study, no one was able to predict the future of the ME-3 bacterium in 1995. “If the destination you want to reach in science were very precisely targeted, maybe it would not be real science,” she added.
In her words, ME-3 was completely different from the probiotics of that time. Mikelsaar remembers that as late as 2002, the World Health Organisation defined probiotics as dietary supplements that positively influence human microbiota. “In 2010, a new definition came, saying that there are probiotics with targeted properties, like for example ME-3 lowers cholesterol levels and improves cellular respiration. This is a completely new level,” said Mikelsaar.
Lactobacillus fermentum ME-3 is a human strain with well described and scientifically proven properties. It is the only bacterium in the world with two patented beneficial effects: it has antimicrobial and antioxidative properties. Research in Estonia and abroad has proved that the ME-3 bacterium has beneficial health effects. More precisely, it
survives and reproduces in the specific conditions of the gastrointestinal tract maintains and enriches the intestinal microbiota by increasing the amount of useful bacteria improves digestion destroys harmful bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract protects against intestinal infections maintains normal microbial balance of the gastrointestinal tract during and after antibiotic therapy reduces oxidative stress in the whole organism lowers cholesterol levels in the blood and protects against calcification of blood vessels supports atopic dermatitis treatment by suppressing inflammation
Reg’Activ Essential ME-3 capsules are produced by the French company VF Bioscience SAS, where the laboratories are suitable for growing ME-3 bacteria. According to Jane Luht, Head of Technology Transfer at the UT Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, preparations are being made to take ME-3 capsules also to the markets of Japan and the Republic of South Africa.
“Research and dissertations on ME-3 have been conducted and written at the University of Tartu for more than 20 years. It is pleasant that scientists are enthusiastic about further developing the applications of this bacterium,” Jane Luht commented on the UT’s most successful technology transfer project so far. “The use of ME-3 in dairy products and dietary supplements is not the only solution, we are also looking for possible applications in other areas.” According to Luht, ME-3 can be used, for example, in salad oil, chocolate, plant-based milks, as well as in cosmetics – all this requires further research with potential cooperation partners. “Initial information, however, is promising,” Luht added.
Luht said that the reason why the bacterium that was discovered in Estonia came on sale in the pharmacies here only recently lies in the smallness of Estonia. “For large companies, the Estonian market is extremely small. They will not develop a product solely for us, because the costs cannot be recovered within a reasonable time,” she said. For example, Reg’Activ Cholesterol, which contains ME-3 bacteria, was first sold in France. Also the pure ME-3 in capsules first came on sale in Australia, then Great Britain and Italy. Only thereafter it was worthwhile for the manufacturer to turn to small markets like Estonia.
“In the production process, one batch is so large that in Estonia it would take us several years to consume. Only very big companies can afford to wait until their expenses are covered by large markets,” said Luht.
The capsules are currently on sale in Tallinn in the pharmacy of Mustamäe Health Centre, Arsenal pharmacy and the pharmacy of Baltic Station Market; and in Tartu in Uus Apteek pharmacy at Tartu University Hospital.
On 27 March, the University of Tartu and Tere AS held a conference to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Hellus range of dairy products. According to Professor Marika Mikelsaar, pharmacists, family practitioners and dietary advisors were invited to the conference to enhance their awareness of the health-beneficial properties of the ME-3.