Given Nutrition By The UN As A Child, This Scientist Set Out To Revolutionize Children's Probiotics
This article originally appeared on Forbes
By Afif Ghannoum
He was seven years old, one of hundreds of children standing in the courtyard of a wizened two-story building. As teachers lead the school day’s morning routine, Mahmoud was fidgety as he waited for the daily ritual to be over. A slight summer breeze from the Mediterranean Sea swept dust through the courtyard on an otherwise sunny day.
Born in the heart of Beirut, Lebanon, he and his six brothers and sisters grew up right next to one of the largest refugee camps in the region. The sheer magnitude of the camp brought international aid, including from UNICEF, the United Nations organization that has worked to improve the lives of children and their family for 70 years in over 190 countries.
It was UNICEF that created that school in the early 1950’s for refugee children in the camp. Their goal was to somewhat normalize not only their education, but other aspects of their lives, such as their nutritional needs.
Mahmoud wasn’t a refugee, he was actually Lebanese. But it was well known among the locals that the school was much better than any available to their children, a fact that wasn’t lost on Mahmoud’s father. A plumber by trade, Afif had never learned to read or write, and was obsessed with making sure his children were educated.
In 1950’s Lebanon, the right paperwork could lead to better opportunities, and it was with the right paperwork in hand, that Mahmoud and his father arrived at the UNICEF school. Afif presented his son to the UNICEF officials as ready for school, a right he had as a documented refugee.
Paperwork in hand, Mahmoud started his formal education at the ripe old age of six. A year later, he was in that courtyard, where right before the school day began, teachers would hand each child a metal cup with milk, and a fish oil capsule.
Mahmoud would look at the dull yellow capsule before plopping it in his mouth. It was big, and a little hard to swallow, but in his mind he could see his father saying, “whatever they give you, you take it. It’s good for you.” He’d put the capsule in his mouth, and slug it down with a gulp of milk.
Every day he would come to school, work hard, and take his daily nutritional supplementation. If his father cared about something more than the education it was the milk and fish oil. He didn’t quite know why it was good, but he knew that if UNICEF was doing it, it must be good, and Mahmoud was going to have it.
And so it went for another ten years, until at the age of 17, Mahmoud had distinguished himself as the top student at the school, receiving a scholarship at the world-renowned American University of Beirut (also known as AUB). After finishing his undergraduate education, he was accepted into a Microbial Physiology PhD program at Loughborough University, one of England’s leading science universities.
Having no money for Mahmoud’s plane ticket, Afif sold his work tools to give him just enough for a plane ticket and a few pounds to get Mahmoud started in England. No tools meant no work. But he didn’t care. Giving his son the chance to study in England was something he didn’t dare dream of when Mahmoud was a child, so if selling his means to make a living was what it was going to take, it was worth it to him.
That PhD program was the beginning of Mahmoud’s love affair with the study of medically important fungi. It started with his PhD thesis on Candida and has resulted (as of this writing) in over 400 peer-reviewed papers and being cited over 18,000 times in the medical literature. Over that time he left England, eventually ending up as an NIH-funded scientist in the United States. He’s also the scientist that named our body’s mycobiome.
In 2016, Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum made perhaps his most significant contribution to science, when he discovered that bacteria and fungi work together to form a thick film in our guts. Known as digestive biofilm, the film could have a devastating effect on our digestive systems. That discovery lead him to co-found BIOHM the first microbiome company to pioneer products around the dual role of bacteria and fungi in the gut.
The other co-founder of BIOHM? Me! As a regulatory and biotech attorney, I have worked with Dr. Ghannoum to bring a number of products to market. He also happens to be my Dad!
With BIOHM, my sole driving focus is to make my father’s science and innovation come to life outside of academic papers, making them truly accessible to consumers.
The first two products we created at BIOHM were BIOHM probiotics, designed to balance our gut's total microbiome of bacteria and fungi in the gut, and the BIOHM Gut Report, an at home microbiome sequencing kit, that gives consumers data on the specific types and levels of bacteria and fungi in their gut, along with personalized wellness recommendations based on their results.
Six months after launching, we were helping thousands of people across the United States on their quest to optimize their digestive health. We also generated millions of microbiome sequencing data points through the BIOHM Gut Report, more data than my father has generated in all the studies he’s conducted as an NIH-funded scientist.
While we felt like BIOHM was off to a great start, there was one thing my father was obsessed with: creating nutritional supplements for children. I would say “OK Dad, we will, next we will do it.” He kept on about it, and I figured it was driven by his relationship with my kids and his other grandchildren. It wasn’t until a couple months after he kept pushing me that I made a comment about him being relentless about it.
It was then that he told me about UNICEF and the milk and fish oil. The family of nine lived in a two room (not bedroom, room) apartment. Meals were never missed, but there wasn’t much to go around. Mahmoud’s mother cooked meals on a kerosene camper stove in the middle of one of the rooms. To this day, Mahmoud has a scar from getting scalded when one of his brothers (he doesn’t remember which), knocked over a pot of water onto his arm.
As a scientist, he had come to learn how lucky he had been to not only have access to schooling through UNICEF, but also to a program that recognized how critical nutrition is to a growing child’s health. He cried telling me how much he had come to appreciate that his parents, both uneducated and illiterate, had willed Mahmoud and his siblings into lives they could not have fathomed for themselves.
I was dumbfounded. I knew he had gone to some sort of school for the nearby refugee camp, but I didn’t really know much about it. My father’s survived multiple wars, traveled across war-torn countries, brought us as refugees to the United States in the 1990’s, all while becoming a world-renowned scientist. Of all the stories I had heard about his life, I had never heard this one.
It floored me to think that my father, one of the leading microbiome scientists in the world, had once relied on the UN for nutritional support as a child.
After that conversation we turned to creating a children’s version of our next generation BIOHM probiotics. We had four tasks at hand.
One, ensuring that the high-octane probiotic technology in our adult BIOHM probiotic, could be right-sized for a kid’s tummy.
Two, figuring out how to to make it non-GMO, free from: synthetics, soy, gluten, egg, sugar and any artificial ingredients of any kind.
Three, ensuring the strains would stay alive as they traveled from a child’s mouth down to their guts.
Four, doing all of the above, while making it taste great to a child.
It was certainly a challenge, but we agreed that if we were going to do it, we wouldn’t accept anything less.
After months of work and formula optimization, we were there. We created BIOHM Children’s, a chewable probiotic that maintains the balance of both bacteria and fungi in a child's gut.
When the samples arrived at our headquarters, I called my father to come down. As he took the cotton out of the jar and shook loose a couple tablets, he was smiling like a child on Christmas morning.
My father had finally accomplished his longtime goal of contributing to children’s nutrition.
He was genuinely excited, gleaming in a way a child gets when they finally get that coveted toy. Despite all he had been through, my father has never lost the capacity to experience a moment of genuine joy. An ability that fades for most of us as we age.
I think that’s because in many ways my father, Dr. Ghannoum, will always first be Mahmoud, that little boy on the Mediterranean, with a tin cup of milk in one hand, a fish oil pill in the other, and a quick smile for anyone that passed by. Little did that boy know what he would go on to accomplish.
Dr. Ghannoum as a child