Microbiome-directed therapeutic foods tackle childhood malnutrition

By Samantha Black, PhD, ScienceBoard editor in chief

July 14, 2019 -- The results of two new reports, linking the growth of infants and children to healthy development of gut microbiomes, were published in Science on July 12th. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, utilized microbiome-directed complementary foods in an approach that focuses on selectively boosting key growth-promoting gut microbes using ingredients present in affordable, culturally acceptable foods. We believe that is an important topic to many of our Science Board researchers.

Childhood malnutrition is a massive global health problem, affecting 150 million children under age 5 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Other causes of malnutrition include poor feeding behavior, offering the wrong foods, not ensuring the child gets enough nutritious food, and infection. Ready-to-use Therapeutic Foods (RUTF) have revolutionized the treatment of malnutrition in many locations around the world.

In the recent publications (a, b), researchers tested many formulations of the therapeutic foods that developed to increase the amount of key nutrients children consume. However, a leading therapeutic food was designed specifically to support growth and expansion of gut microbes linked to healthy microbiome development. This is evidence that the microbiome has a significant effect on the overall health of growing children, including key mediators of metabolism, and of bone, brain and immune system development.

Studying the microbiomes of healthy Bangladeshi children sampled monthly from birth through five years, and using the new computational method, they identified a network of 15 gut bacterial community members that consistently interacted with one another. They named this network an ecogroup. The ecogroup also served as a sensitive and accurate way of determining how severely disrupted microbial communities are in children with moderate and severe malnutrition, and the degree to which they are repaired with various treatments.

Based on the results of microbiome analysis and the development of a formulation based on a mixture of nutrients from chickpea, soy, bananas and peanuts, researchers found that gut microbial communities residing in the intestines of children receiving this lead therapeutic food had undergone a reconfiguration and more closely resembled microbial communities found in age-matched healthy children living in the same locale.

While availability to affordable, nutritious food is only one problem contributing to the childhood malnutrition epidemic, solving this piece of the puzzle may provide us with an essential link in ending childhood malnutrition.

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