Developing and commercializing tailored probiotics for women in menopause

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Reflections on Teaching

Developing and commercializing tailored probiotics for women in menopause

Kim Yun Tai (Professor, UST-Korea Food Research Institute (KFRI) School)

The human life expectancy is ever increasing. The average life span of women in Korea is 86 years. Given the average menopausal age of 49.7 years, 43% of Korean women will be in their postmenopausal years by 2030. In this fiery-hot weather, women going through the menopausal stages experience even further challenges due to the hot flash. Many mental and physical signs of menopause, for example facial blushing, numbness of hands and feet, depression, palpitation, fatigue, and helplessness, are bothersome enough to keeping them from maintain concentration in their daily lives, hence drastic decreases in the quality of life among post-middle-age women. As people are increasingly interested in the importance of menopausal management and immunity, the probiotics market is ever-growing. Research focuses on the functionalities of microorganisms contained probiotic products, and there are many products that target niche markets. Among the products in the spotlight is the YT1, the world’s only probiotics specifically designed for women in menopause.

You can’t avoid menopause. YT1 is here to help you get over it.

Professor Kim Yun Tai at the Korea Food Research Institute (KFRI) School, who developed the limelight-hogger YT1, is living in a whirl of business. On the one hand, his YT1, which he developed to help middle-age women experiencing menopause live a healthier life, became the first in Korea to be recognized as an Individual Approval Type commercial probiotic product that eases menopausal symptoms. On the other hand, Professor Kim is putting spurs to his research efforts for the YT2.

“It all started in 2013. Back then the impact of the intestinal microbiome on the human body was a global research interest. Previously research on functional ingredients to help women in menopausal ages ease relevant symptoms primarily focused on natural ingredients with estrogen, a female hormone, or phytoestrogen. We started delving into the correlations between estrogen and the intestinal microbiome with the aim to develop probiotics for women in menopause, rather than phytoestrogen.”

Professor Kim developed an animal model of menopause that would unravel the correlations between menopausal symptoms and the intestinal microbiome and harnessed next-generation sequencing techniques to examine changes in the intestinal microbiome. He found changes in the characteristics of the intestinal microbiome from his menopausal model and specifically identified microorganisms decreasing, hence the discovery of the probiotic strain candidates YT1 and YT2.

“The efficacy of the YT1 on easing menopausal symptoms was confirmed by animal studies and human studies. From the animal studies, we observed increases in bone density, decreases in pain sensitivity, improvement in depression-like behaviors, and activation of barriers. The human studies demonstrated improvement in the Kupperman Menopausal Index and the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life (MENQOL) scores following the intake of the YT1.”

The YT1 was the first probiotic ingredient to obtain an Individual Approval for Health Functional Food by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety for women in menopause, meaning that it was the first ingredient to have recognized benefits for women’s health and intestinal health. After the Individual Approval, Professor Kim furthered his research efforts and finally in April 2020 succeeded in commercializing the product. In September that year, he obtained the New Technology Certification from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the product has earned stable revenues in the local market.

“The YT1 and YT2 were named after the initials of my given name. That further justified me doing my utmost efforts. (Laughter) We experienced many challenges going through the research, which we got over by consulting experts in various areas, working with many different researchers, and joining hands with businesses to which we have transferred our technology. And my dear students at the UST School, Lim Eun-young and Park Joon, have been great assets for me.”

Synergies in mutual interest

When Professor Kim joined the KFRI in 2012, he found that his close colleagues were also working as UST faculty members. That’s how he familiarized himself with the UST, and he accepted his first student one year later.

“At first we had weaker ties, and I felt the pressure that I should supervise them to help them keep on track. But I saw them as my research partners, rather than supervisor-student relationships, which greatly motivated me.”

Professor Kim is working with two students at the UST. But he will unwillingly have to let them go, as Lim Eun-young will be graduating in February next year, and Park Joon is about to graduate.

“Lim and Park are seniors at the UST School. They know the whole research process to the dot, and they truly are diligent workhorses. They keep me from falling into idleness and help me keep my tension in the lab. We study together fresh research topics that neither of us have thought about, and we work together to find answers. I believe that this makes them feel a greater sense of achievement.”

Not everyone’s dream is the same. That’s why Professor Kim highlights the need to support them, as their supervisor and research colleague, to help them pursue their own paths.

“Like any others, my dreams changed many times. And over time I found myself being in this position. I always tell them to think prudently but not to worry about uncertainties. If my students would seek a job in industry, I’d face their future together, and I’d also recommend them to some companies. We study together and think together to find out where we want to be.”

Professor Kim looks forward to continuing his research that would add value to people’s daily lives.

“My first aim is to preoccupy overseas markets by exporting this technology, and the second aim is to take advantage of my experience in developing the YT1 to commercialize the YT2. In addition to my current research on menopausal women’s health, I would also like to pursue commercialization-ready research projects, for example developing functional ingredients to improve brain functions, and help local small businesses grow through technical transfers and joint research.”