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St. Joseph's Health Centre Toronto

Testing the power of probiotics


Dr. Jennie Johnstone, Infection Control Officer

In recent years, probiotics have become the face of ‘good bacteria’, known for their ability to help with digestion, they are found in everything from yogurt to baby food. Dr. Jennie Johnstone, our Infection Control Officer, tests the capacity for probiotics to prevent illness in a new research project funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research.


Tell us a bit about your project:

I’ve always been interested in preventing healthcare-associated infections and pneumonia is an infection that can affect critically-ill patients who are using ventilators to breathe. This research project looks at how we can use probiotics to reduce the risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP).

Why are intubated patients particularly at-risk for VAP?

Everyone has bacteria in their mouth. For people who are critically-ill the bacteria that develops tends to be more aggressive a
nd the ventilator, which connects the mouth to the lungs—creates a highway that makes it easy for these bugs to travel from the mouth down into the lungs. Once there, the bacteria can cause infection in the lungs.

How common is this problem?

When people are ill their bodies are weakened, so about 15-20% of patients who are intubated will get pneumonia; which can result in people staying in the hospital for longer than they should.

So this is something we definitely want to prevent – how can probiotics help?

Probiotics help maintain healthy bacteria in your digestive system. Studies show that having the right mix of bacteria in your gut can help to regulate the immune system in your lungs as well. So the thinking is if you strengthen the presence of good bacteria in one area of the body, it may strengthen other parts of the body.

So your study will build on this hypothesis that probiotics can help prevent VAP?

Yes, there have been a few studies with small trials exploring this theory, but not enough patients have been involved to draw strong conclusions. We will be providing probiotics or a placebo to over 2,500 patients over the next three years. We’re working with 38 hospitals across Canada, the US, UK and Saudi Arabia and at the end, we will know if probiotics can prevent or reduce VAP.

What’s the most exciting part of this project for you?

This project builds on work I did as part of my PhD, which is when I wrote the proposal for this study. Now four years later the project is finally launching. It’s satisfying to have had this idea and now have the opportunity to turn it into a reality. I’m also looking forward to working with St. Joe’s on this project; Dr. Rob Cirone is the site investigator — so it will be nice to collaborate with my colleagues in new ways.

Dr. Johnstone is an Infection Prevention and Control Officer and Infectious Diseases Physician at St. Joe’s and an Infection Prevention and Control Physician at Public Health Ontario.

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