The immunomodulatory properties of probiotic microorganisms beyond their viability (ghost probiotics: proposal of paraprobiotic concept)

Genes Nutr. 2011 Aug;6(3):261-74. doi: 10.1007/s12263-011-0218-x. Epub 2011 Apr 16.


The probiotic approach represents a potentially effective and mild alternative strategy for the prevention and treatment of either inflammatory or allergic diseases. Several studies have shown that different bacterial strains can exert their probiotic abilities by influencing the host's immune system, thereby modulating immune responses. However, the emerging concern regarding safety problems arising from the extensive use of live microbial cells is enhancing the interest in non-viable microorganisms or microbial cell extracts, as they could eliminate shelf-life problems and reduce the risks of microbial translocation and infection. The purpose of this review is to provide an overview of the scientific literature concerning studies in which dead microbial cells or crude microbial cell fractions have been used as health-promoting agents. Particular attention will be given to the modulation of host immune responses. Possible mechanisms determining the effect on the immune system will also be discussed. Finally, in the light of the FAO/WHO definition of probiotics, indicating that the word 'probiotic' should be restricted to products that contain live microorganisms, and considering the scientific evidence indicating that inactivated microbes can positively affect human health, we propose the new term 'paraprobiotic' to indicate the use of inactivated microbial cells or cell fractions to confer a health benefit to the consumer.