Researchers make new inroads in the study of undernourishment

USAID Africa Bureau

“In the longer term, the aim is to improve the diagnostics of viral and parasitic infections, and to develop environmental hygienic and other measures that can be used to reduce the occurrence of such infections in children and thus improve children’s growth and development in low-income countries”, Professor Ashorn explains.

Researchers at the University of Tampere are launching a new study on the significance of viruses, parasites and worms in causing early childhood undernourishment and reduced growth, usually referred to as stunting. This approach is new worldwide, and it extends the scope of the previous studies undertaken at the University on the prevention and treatment of malnutrition. The project also aims to develop diagnostic tools suitable for use in low income settings and to create new business opportunities in both Finland and low-income countries.

Three research groups from the University of Tampere will participate in the study. The first group, led by Per Ashorn, professor of paediatrics, has investigated undernourishment and its prevention; the second group, led by Heikki Hyöty, professor of virology, has studied enteroviruses; and the third group, led by Seppo Parkkila, professor of anatomy, has studied infections caused by parasites.

“Thus far, many of our international colleagues have been interested in the effects of intestinal bacteria on child development and well-being. Our study extends the research to the other micro-organisms in the body”, explains Ashorn, the director of the new project.

Investigating the effect and diagnosis of infections

“Our hypothesis is that the prevalence of stunting in poor countries is to a great extent caused by the asymptomatic viral and parasitic infections the children suffer.

“Our premise is that such infections are common in childhood and that they cause an intestinal infection called environmental intestinal dysfunction (EID), which increases the permeability of the intestinal wall, decreases the absorption of nutrients and weakens children’s physical growth by weakening their growth hormone response.

“We will study who has such infections, what impact the infections have on health and how they can be diagnosed”, Ashorn says.

Across the world, about twenty per cent of all 0–5-year-olds suffer from stunted growth associated with undernourishment. Thus far, the causes of this dysfunction are not sufficiently known. The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the reduction of stunted growth as one of its global health goals.

Three Finnish businesses involved

Finnish business partners are also associated with the two-year research project, which will be conducted as a Finnish-Malawian cooperation.

“In the longer term, the aim is to improve the diagnostics of viral and parasitic infections, and to develop environmental hygienic and other measures that can be used to reduce the occurrence of such infections in children and thus improve children’s growth and development in low-income countries”, Ashorn explains.

Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation – has provided the Microbial Diagnostics research project a grant of 543,000 euros. Other partners and project funders include three Finnish businesses.

The Tekes funding comes from BEAM – Business with Impact – a joint programme of Tekes and Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

The aim of BEAM is to assist Finnish enterprises and other actors – such as researchers – in using innovations to address global development challenges, and to convert such innovations into successful and sustainable business in both Finland and developing countries.

More information on the BEAM – Business with Impact programme is available on the Tekes website.

For further information, please contact:

Professor Per Ashorn, tel. +358 40 728 0354
Postdoctoral researcher, Doctor of Science (Technology) Kirsi-Maarit Lehto, tel. +358 50 420 1494