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The impact of probiotics and prebiotics on the immune system

Nature Reviews Immunology volume 12, pages 728734 (2012) | Download Citation


Probiotics and prebiotics are increasingly being added to foodstuffs with claims of health benefits. Probiotics are live microorganisms that are thought to have beneficial effects on the host, whereas prebiotics are ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or function of beneficial intestinal microorganisms. But can these products directly modulate immune function and influence inflammatory diseases? Here, Nature Reviews Immunology asks four experts to discuss these issues and provide their thoughts on the future application of probiotics as a disease therapy.

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M.R. is supported by the European Research Council, the European Commission (FP7: IBDase, MetaHIT), the Italian Ministry of Health, the Association for International Cancer Research and the Italian Association for Cancer Research.

Author information


  1. Todd R. Klaenhammer is at the Department of Food, Bioprocessing & Nutrition Sciences, 339 Schaub Hall, BOX 7624, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695, USA.

    • Todd R. Klaenhammer
  2. Michiel Kleerebezem is at the Host Microbe Interactomics Group, Wageningen University, De Elst 1, 6708 WD Wageningen, The Netherlands.;

    • Michiel Kleerebezem
  3. Matthias Volkmar Kopp is at the Department of Pediatric Pulmonology and Allergy, Children's Hospital, University of Lübeck, UKSH, Ratzeburger Allee 160, 23538 Luebeck, Germany.

    • Matthias Volkmar Kopp
  4. Maria Rescigno is at the Department of Experimental Oncology, European Institute of Oncology, Via Adamello 16, 20139 Milan, Italy.

    • Maria Rescigno


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Competing interests

T.R.K. has received grants from Danisco USA & DuPont Nutrition & Health, and Dairy Research, Inc., for research on the functional genomics of probiotic lactobacilli.

M.K. declares no competing financial interests.

M.V.K. has received research funds for clinical trials from Infectopharm (Heppenheim, Germany) and Novartis Pharma (Nuernberg, Germany). M.V.K. has consultant arrangements with Infectopharm (Heppenheim, Germany), Novartis Pharma (Nuernberg, Germany), Nutricia (Erlangen, Germany) and Bencard (Muenchen, Germany).

M.R. declares no competing financial interests.


Epidermal growth factor receptor

(EGFR). A cell-surface receptor that binds a family of growth factors that includes EGF and transforming growth factor-β (TGFβ).

Inflammatory bowel disease

(IBD). A group of conditions, of unknown aetiology, in which the intestinal mucosa is chronically inflamed. Includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Lipoteichoic acid

A major constituent of the cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria. The structure of lipoteichoic acid varies between the different species of Gram-positive bacteria and may contain long chains of ribitol or glycerol phosphate. It is anchored to the cell membrane via a glyceride and can stimulate specific immune responses.

Necrotizing enterocolitis

(NEC). A gastrointestinal disease predominantly affecting premature infants with low birth-weight. NEC involves infection and inflammation that causes destruction of the intestine. Although the pathophysiology of NEC is not yet completely defined, increasing evidence indicates that immaturity of intestinal innate immune function in the premature gut is a major factor.


Non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of bacteria in the digestive system.


Live microorganisms that when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.

The molecular bandwidth of health

The differences in the 'stable' baseline molecular makeup of mucosal tissue in the intestine of healthy human individuals.

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