UBC researchers attack childhood malnutrition

The solution to childhood malnutrition is closer than ever. Researchers from the University of British Columbia have successfully created a new tool to better study the global health issue.

Dr. Brett Finlay, a professor of microbiology and chemistry at UBC, and PhD student Eric Brown have produced the first animal model with symptoms of gut bacterial disease linked to malnutrition. 

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“It’s a lot of complex science but really I call it a developing country mouse model and it will allow us to really begin to understand much more of what actually goes on in these kids,” said Finlay.

Malnutrition in children is a global problem, especially prevalent in developing countries. According to UNICEF, nearly half of all deaths in children under five are due to malnutrition. And its effects are long-term, including stunted growth, compromised immune system, poor brain development and delays in motor and cognitive development.

“The number of kids with this is phenomenal worldwide,” Finlay said.

But treating this problem has proven difficult, as it is not just a result of poor diet but also gut bacteria and environmental factors.

“If you’re a young kid eating a malnourished diet, you would think you could feed them a better nourished diet and it would fix it, but that’s not the case,” Brown said.

Many malnourished children in the developing world also have environmental enteropathy, an inflammatory disorder of the small intestine. It results in changes in gut bacteria, which causes problems absorbing food, vitamins and minerals. It is believed to be caused by environmental factors such as contaminated feces in water.

“There’s not a whole lot of basic research into what are the mechanisms behind the disease,” said Brown.

However, the new animal model brings us closer to knowing more. They found that when mice were given a poor diet along with E. coli and bacteroidetes bacteria, they developed malnutrition and symptoms of environmental enteropathy including stunted growth, intestinal inflammation and weak immune systems.

“It opens up a whole bunch of ways of really understanding how malnutrition works, how the microbes play a role in that, and also what we can do about it,” said Finlay of the new model.

Brown says that improving the hygiene of the environment where children are raised may be part of the solution, but it’s not that simple.

“There’s still a billion kids living in these areas and this is a disease not a lot of people know about,” Brown said.

Microbes have a large role in human health, affecting the immune system and nutritional status. They have been implicated in many diseases including obesity, Type 1 diabetes, asthma and inflammatory-bowel diseases.

“There’s more microbial cells that live in our body than human cells,” Brown said.

Dr. Finlay is working on a collaboration with Paris’s Institut Pasteur to study the disease in children in Africa for a project called Afribiota.


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