Pursuing a Career Combining Biology, Genetics, & Biotechnology

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Miguel Freitas

Today, we hear from Dr. Miguel Freitas, VP of Scientific Affairs at Danone North America, which makes familiar brands such as Dannon, Activia, Horizon Organic, Silk and many others.

Miguel Freitas grew up in a family of doctors and nurses. When he finished high school, he knew exactly what he was going to pursue, not only a science career, but one specifically in combining biology, genetics, and biotechnology. Although the options to study biotechnology in Portugal were still limited in 1990, a newly created degree in Food Engineering at the Oporto College of Biotechnology promised to deliver all that he was looking for. This study confirmed to Miguel more than ever that he was to have a career in research as he had developed a real enjoyment for the laboratory work, especially food microbiology. He then began developing an intense curiosity about the complexities of the body in general and how we interact with the food we eat, particularly, the bacteria we eat specifically.

After graduating in Portugal, he pursued a European Master’s degree in food studies that allowed him to network with different European Academic Institutions and Industry. His Masters thesis was on Food Microbiology with a focus on lactic acid bacteria with probiotic activity. Later, while completing his PhD at the National Institute of Health in Paris (INSERM), he started working with Danone, where his thesis focused on a specific strain of probiotic - Lactobacillus casei - and how it supports our immune system. For several years, his career was dedicated to understanding the complex interactions between probiotics, the gut, and the microbiota. Then, in 2004, an opportunity presented itself to move to Danone North America in New York. Since then he has been working at the crossroads of science and marketing, a dual discipline that allows him to “continue to have a strong connection with biology, nutrition, and medicine while applying that knowledge to Danone business priorities.”

This leads us to Miguel Freitas, now being the VP of Scientific Affairs for Danone North America. His role is working as a liaison between Danone and the US scientific community, ensuring the alignment and integrity of the Danone product portfolio with respect to health attributes.

When reflecting on his past, Miguel believes that “some of the most enriching life experiences one can have is to live and work in different countries, not only personally but also intellectually.” He was fortunate to study in several European countries which led to an understanding of the importance that food has in different cultures and in the daily life of their population.

One example of this is how fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir have been a staple in most European home for decades, especially in Northern countries. People there have intuitively and empirically understood for generations the benefits of fermentation and live bacteria that thrive in dairy. In the late 90s, when he traveled to Japan and the US to visit different food industries, it became clear to him that when it came to probiotics, Europe and Asia were both much more advanced than the United States.

When he arrived in the US in 2004, the American understanding and knowledge to the benefits of “Good” bacteria were still extremely limited. This was driven by the belief that an “anti-bacterial” and “sterile” environment was always preferable for health. With the launch of Activia in 2006 and other education efforts on probiotics in the US, Danone has contributed to the recent changes in both the healthcare and consumer acceptance of probiotics and live cultures in the US. In the past decade, there has been an emergence of new tools for exploring the molecular events linking gut microbes to host health, including the effects of probiotics. These new tools and associated discoveries are contributing to changing the way people think about bacteria and how we approach the field of the microbiome.

When looking to the future, Miguel points to how probiotics have been shown to benefit the digestive system, immune system, or other functions of the body, such as helping with weight management, lactose digestion, heart health, and diabetes. Much scientific research is still being conducted to better understand how probiotics work, as well as to discover additional beneficial strains. “Some of the most exciting areas of research are focused on studying the impact of specific probiotics in improving or helping balance the microbiome and microbiota. Research is also ongoing to discover more about the connection between your gut and your brain, and how certain probiotics can impact that connection. The mind-gut connection and role of probiotics are one of the most exciting areas of research in the probiotics field today,” he says.

One of the ways Danone North America is supporting education and innovative research of the subject is through their educational grants for microbiome research. The Danone North America Fellowship Grant is now in its seventh year and was established to help further study the areas of probiotics, yogurt, and the microbiome as Miguel is honored to be on the judging panel. For example, the 2018-2019 Danone North America Gut Microbiome, Yogurt and Probiotics Fellowship Grant offered two $25,000 grants to graduate students for tuition, research projects and to support their continued education and research on related topics during 2019.

In his own life, Miguel treats his microbiome to yogurt for its live and active cultures or “good bacteria” such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus, and other probiotics that have been shown to contribute to the maintenance of a balanced gut microbiota. He also talks about the importance of prebiotics, the probiotic food, which has been shown to beneficially impact gut microbiota because they act as a substrate that is selectively utilized by beneficial host microorganisms. He encourages eating a variety of foods with naturally present prebiotics such as artichokes, onions, chicory, green vegetables as well as oats, barley, and wheat. It seems that Miguel eats what he is preaching and we wish him a healthy microbiome!

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