24. Apr 2020

Heidrun Valencak-Hösel

“Bacteria are my life!”

Probiotics are on everyone’s lips, and deservedly so! After all, the targeted use of specially combined bacterial strains allows us to support the intestines through all walks of life and positively affect the entire organism through our centre of health. The products of the Austrian brand OMNi-BiOTiC® have been approved by pharmacists, doctors and users for many years. However, at the beginning of this success story, everything looked much different.

Over 30 years ago, Mag. Anita Frauwallner, founder and CEO of the AllergoSan Institute and mastermind behind OMNi-BiOTiC®, wasn’t very involved in intestinal health and probiotics. Although this educated linguist was well versed in the health field through the medical studies of her husband, she wasn’t interested in scientific research or product development. This first step was inspired by a group of doctors and marine biologists who were looking for completely allergen-free supplements for patients with severe food intolerances. This led to the founding of the AllergoSan Institute in 1991 – with this fundamental idea giving the company its name.

Her interest in intestinal life and its effects on health and disease was the result of a devastating personal stroke of fate: After a trip overseas, Anita Frauwallner’s young husband returned with severe traveller’s diarrhoea that eventually developed into ulcerative colitis, and ultimately into colon cancer.

Frau Mag. Anita Frauwallner mit Reagenzglas

Although he was well connected as a doctor, his colleagues weren’t able to help him, and he died at the age of 40. “Throughout all those years and visits with my husband to many stations in hospitals, I had the feeling that all the drugs could only alleviate the symptoms but couldn’t treat the cause”, explains the now intestinal expert about her personal journey towards the microbiome. “At first, I tried to find alternatives to treating my husband’s disease by looking nutritional medicine, orthomolecular approaches, traditional Chinese and spagyric medicine, but to no avail. Only after his death and the feeling of complete failure did I suddenly realise what I had to do: I had to figure out how the intestines and especially its inner ecosystems work, and whether changes in this bacterial world could help people with intestinal diseases.”

Pioneer of a new idea

At the beginning of her endeavours, Anita Frauwallner was almost alone with her ideas – microbiome research was still in its infancy back in the 90s. Scientific papers were few and far between, and the thought about influencing our entire health through the intestines was mocked by many. Nevertheless, the company founder wasn’t perturbed – and she was lucky enough to meet the right experts at the right time:
“I had the opportunity to meet Prof. Frans Rombouts, head of the University Wageningen and one of the leading microbiologists worldwide. He transformed my intrinsic interest in our intestinal symbionts into pure fascination with his vast knowledge and basically kindled my love towards these wonderful living beings”, remembers Anita Frauwallner. “Together we developed ideas of what the ideal probiotic should do and studied what bacterial characteristics were already known, especially what we could do better than 50 years before. Again and again, others were astonished by my questions and ideas – which turned into amazement through all the new insights.

This led to the development of the first probiotic at the AllergoSan Institute. Extra care was put into using key bacterial strains, i.e. especially strong bacterial strains that can grow in every human being. Another key aspect was ideally combining exciting bacterial species with a matrix of prebiotic substances to activate the bacteria and bring them where they were needed most. An absolute innovation.” In compliance with the highest quality standards, OMNi-BiOTiC® 6 was born: Originally, it was only made for the sale in pharmacies in Graz.

Very soon, however, there was a huge interest in this product from other pharmacies as Anita Frauwallner explains: “Not only does OMNi-BiOTiC® have an exceptionally higher number of bacteria than other probiotic brands, our consumers also report feeling the product already after the first package! Customers who were often desperate improved their quality and joy of life within a short time”. The increasing demand and experience placed the by now internationally sought-after expert before a very difficult and momentous decision after a few years – research or pharmacy? Doing both was not possible. Her hunger for knowledge and belief that she could help suffering people much more through research led Anita Frauwallner to make a brave decision. She sold the pharmacy and focused on the AllergoSan Institute and the development of completely new, indication-specific probiotics.

Teamwork: Science as the foundation of quality

The basic idea of the targeted combination of various bacterial strains into strong and effective teams – into so-called multispecies probiotics – quickly became the significant key to success, even though the development of the right formulas posed huge challenges for the scientist, and still do to this day: “The characteristics and functions of intestinal symbionts are very complex – just like humans. Just imagine, you can choose your own team for a football match. You choose the best players for each position: The goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders – and lastly, the best striker in the world. Nevertheless, you don’t win the world cup: Although every single player is world-class, they don’t play well as a team. The players compete against one another instead of playing together”, explains Anita Frauwallner. In the world of intestinal microbes, this means the following: Just because we combine bacterial strain one, two and three doesn’t mean that they produce more lactic acid overall. The whole situation then deteriorates when we add bacterial strain four to the mix. Even though it is also a top performer, it doesn’t play well with the others.

And now, none of them produces the substances that humans need. The whole team performance declines. “For this reason, we not only test every single strain for our OMNi-BiOTiC® products but also the entire probiotic with all its symbionts. We first test them in the lab where we combine the bacterial strains according to their abilities. Afterwards, we put them to the test in scientific studies where we examine the effects of the bacterial combinations against specific problems and only then do we test them on people in renowned hospitals. Today, we follow this procedure for an incredible amount of, often chronic, complaints such as allergies, diabetes, liver diseases, irritable bowel syndrome and true pathogenic germs that cause severe diarrhoea”, clarifies Anita Frauwallner.

By the way, teamwork is not only a top priority in the development of probiotics but also in the entire company: “Even though the headquarters in Graz already has more than 100 employees, the teamwork is exceptional because of our team spirit. Everyone dives head-on into big challenges and even make the impossible possible. Everyone wants to contribute something positive. I really appreciate that about my team and every single individual”, emphasises a proud Anita Frauwallner. By the way: The very first employee who was hired over 20 years ago, is still working at the AllergoSan Institute today.

OMNi-BiOTiC® ENCentre of excellence for microbiome research

Diarrhoea caused by antibiotics was something Anita Frauwallner was often confronted by in her time at the pharmacy and was the foundation of her first big study: What impact do high-quality probiotics have on antibiotic therapy? This question was answered together with the University Maastricht: The test subjects that received a specially developed probiotic during and seven days after an antibiotic therapy had significantly less diarrhoea and were immunologically tougher. Furthermore, they were able to prove something that no one thought was possible: The new bacteria species that were ingested with the probiotic colonised and multiplied in the intestines of the test subjects. “Scientifically proving the reproductivity of our OMNi-BiOTiC® bacteria gave us our international breakthrough!

We were clearly able to show how medically relevant probiotics could support the regeneration of the intestinal flora after being almost eradicated by antibiotics”, explains Anita Frauwallner. This publication from 2008 was a labelled as one of the twelve best studies in the field of microbiome research by the WGO (World Gastroenterology Organisation) – the equivalent of a knighting for the young company from Graz. Up until this day, the study is still accredited worldwide and formed a part of the WGO guidelines. This study, however, was just the beginning: By now, the researchers at the AllergoSan Institute have conducted over 100 studies with internationally renowned university clinics all over the world – the scientific foundation of the now twelve different OMNi-BiOTiC® products.

Anita Frauwallner is especially proud of one of these studies: “We were able to show, together with the Medical University Graz, that probiotics can actually restore the liver function of severely ill people via the enterohepatic circulation! This phenomenal study was featured over 10.000 submitted papers at the most important liver congress in the world. OMNi-BiOTiC® HETOX was awarded the Nicolas-Hall-Award as the most innovative OTC-product in Europe. It is hard to believe, but we get messages every month from liver cirrhosis patients who tell us how they don’t need a liver transplant anymore because their own liver is working again. It really makes me thankful that I dedicated my life to this work.”

Apprehension and missionary work

However, every success brings along foes: Many people don’t like seeing the company of a newcomer receiving so many accolades, especially not those who can’t appreciate its success. This was something Anita Frauwallner experienced at the beginning of her career: “We had just settled down and gained the trust of doctors and pharmacists with our quality when our competitors used all the legal intricacies at their disposal to harms us. I had to fight against many judicial instances, and we often didn’t know whether we would survive the next month financially”, she remembers during the most difficult times of the company. However, the belief in the values of the company helped her pull through.

Despite it all, the AllergoSan Institute won – and quickly became a model company in Austria and celebrated success throughout Europe with its quality and science. “Nevertheless, there were still critics who couldn’t imagine how these tiny intestinal inhabitants could have an impact on every single cell in our body, how disease and health depend on them and whether we really contain such a high diversity of these living beings. We’ve basically been conducting missionary work for the last 25 years”, laughs Anita Frauwallner. “We took the first step by informing pharmacists, doctors and users in hundreds of courses, conferences and symposiums that probiotics should always accompany antibiotics from the first day of treatment onwards. Many years still went by until the rejection turned into active recommendation. However, our educational work is still ongoing since the scientific knowledge about our “intestinal health centre” is continuously growing”. The intestines and its microbiome really do offer a lot to talk about, ever since it was discovered that the intestinal flora positively and negatively influences the development of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. There are also correlations with inflammatory processes such as rheumatism, allergies and metabolic syndrome. Even a successful pregnancy depends on the microbiome.

Scientific motivation from personal experience

But where do these ideas that one can positively influence various complaints with probiotic bacteria come from? Everyday problems for Anita Frauwallner were the key factors in her first studies: “During my time in the pharmacy I knew that diarrhoea was a big problem after antibiotic treatment, especially in hospitals, and for old and weak patients. I therefore also knew that the side effects often only occurred weeks after the antibiotic treatment and could last for months or even years. Even allergies, especially neurodermatitis, are important to me personally. As a child, I suffered terribly from itchy eczema”, she recalls. This tirelessly active woman, who holds presentations all over the world, knows the negative side effects of stress all too well. Early on, she devoted herself to the complaints of elite athletes, who often have to use the toilet ten times before a big event which then negatively affects their performance. Problems often also encountered by one of her friends, who, until this day, completely trusts the expert from Graz.

Since then, the AllergoSan Institute has established a large team of doctors, pharmacists, biologists and dieticians that has gained an excellent reputation in the scientific community. Nowadays, scientists and renowned clinics such as the Charité in Berlin come to the AllergoSan Institute to develop new approaches for difficult medical problems together. For example, research is needed to determine whether probiotics can reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and whether the use of new bacteria combinations makes sense when treating chronic wounds. Again, a recent development comes from the life of our scientist: “My sweet cat Ilja developed Crohn’s disease, a severe chronic inflammatory bowel disease, a few weeks after moving into our home. Again, I had the feeling that the drug that he was prescribed could only treat his symptoms in the short run. Friends asked me why I couldn’t give him OMNi-BiOTiC®. As an intestinal expert, I could surely find a solution. No sooner said than done, and the success was overwhelming: Ilja could barely leave his basket over the last few weeks. A few days after receiving the probiotics, he was happily frolicking around the garden. I know from personal experience how important animals are for many people, especially for children and older people who often don’t have anyone else in their lives. That is why I decided to develop a special product to cater to the needs of cats and dogs. I’m really happy with the success of OMNi-BiOTiC® CAT & DOG”.

Expert advice

Thanks to our “modern” lives, our intestines and microbiome have to be tougher than ever: The constant stress at home and work, the countless drugs (i.e. antibiotics, cholesterol-lowering drugs, stomach lining protectors) that are taken over long periods, industrially produced foods with bad fats, sugars, colourants and additives all put more strain on our intestinal flora than ever before. It’s no wonder that obesity, non-alcoholic fatty livers, irritable bowel syndromes and burnouts (diseases that are all closely related to the intestines) have become more widespread. This multitude of health-related problems makes the development of various probiotics all the more important and using the ideal bacteria combinations for each situation: “Some bacteria cultures have a strong anti-inflammatory effect, while others stimulate the immune system. Some seal the intestinal barrier against toxic substances or produce special vitamins and enzymes that the organism desperately needs”, says Anita Frauwallner, explaining the reason for her indication-based research on probiotics.

The growing supply of probiotics requires special and individual guidance from doctors, therapists and especially pharmacists to help patients choose the right product for their individual needs: “For many years, I helped my clients at the pharmacy, and I know how important it is for users to know about these special needs in coordinated conversations with expert knowledge. That is why it is so important to me that OMNi-BiOTiC® is sold in pharmacies. I know that there is considerable knowledge about the intestines and its inhabitants in pharmacies and customers can always get the right advice”, explains the company founder.

The vision of a healthy society

What originally started as a one-woman business in a single room, that acted as an office, warehouse and shipping station in one, has evolved into an internationally recognised centre for microbiome research. This company not only sells its products in German-speaking countries but has spread to over 30 countries – including the USA. Anita Frauwallner wants to spread her philosophy about the quality of pro- and prebiotics internationally: “It is my vision to develop therapy options without unwanted side effects that treat the cause of diseases and not only its symptoms. The AllergoSan Institute should be able to revolutionise many areas of medicine in the next ten years with its scientifically proven probiotics and significantly contribute to the health of every human.” So that this vision stays alive over the next ten years, the entrepreneur asked her son a few years ago to put all of his energy into the family company and not only act as a consultant for the AllergoSan Institute. Together, science and quality are advanced to give many people a good “gut feeling”.

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