The findings of two recent international studies show that the health promoting gut microbes and certain sugar compounds found in breast milk may help to treat and prevent infant malnutrition.
The role of gut microbes in undernourishment has already been studied previously, but researchers have now identified new gut microbes and sugar compounds found in breast milk that offset the effects of detrimental microbes associated with the undernourishment of children.
“This is a remarkable new step in a line of inquiry that aims to develop interventions to promote the healthy growth of children, especially in poor countries,” says Per Ashorn, professor of paediactrics from the Center for Child Health Research at the University of Tampere.
“The next step is to conduct studies with people,” says Yuemei Fan, a postdoctoral researcher who also participated in the two studies.
The studies, published in the leading academic journals Science and Cell, were conducted on mice by using faecal and breast milk samples gathered from children and their mothers in Malawi.
In the study reported in Science, the gut microbes of either healthy or undernourished Malawian children were transferred to growing mice. The mice in the group receiving microbes from healthy children grew normally and their bones developed well.
The researchers were thus able to associate certain microbes with stable growth and bone development. Mice were first given microbes from an undernourished child. The mice were then administered microbes from a healthy child, after which their bones developed better than those mice in the control group.
The study reported in the journal Cell found that the breast milk of undernourished mothers had a smaller amount of a sugar compound called sialic acid. Other research has linked sialic acid to brain development.
Sialic acid oligosaccharides were administered to one group of mice whose gut microbes came from undernourished Malawian children. One control group was given sugars that did not contain sialic acid and a second control group of mice was fed normal food. The mice receiving sialic acid oligosaccharides grew much better than the other mice. Their bone development was good and they had healthier metabolisms than the mice in the control groups. Similar observations were also made with other animal models.
Ashorn’s research group, together with many partners in Finland and elsewhere, have worked for a long time in order to find ways to support the healthy growth and development of children in conditions where food and resources are in short supply and infections are abundant. Besides gut microbes, the group’s studies have examined, for instance, the effects of maternal nutrition and infections during pregnancy and the role of viral and parasitic infections on children’s health. The group has also tested the effects of various infection and nutrition interventions on the health of mothers and children and developed new, easy to use ways of monitoring infant development.
“The best solution for promoting heathy growth and preventing undernutrition would of course be a large-scale improvement in the children’s living conditions,” Ashorn says. “Unfortunately that is something we will not be able to achieve very quickly.”
“At the moment, we are looking for interim solutions to improve the health of today’s children.”
Both studies were coordinated by Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, United States. Biological samples and clinical data from Malawian children were gathered by the Universities of Tampere and Malawi. These universities also participated in the analysis and the reporting of the research results.
Blanton LV, Charbonneau MR, Salih T, Barratt MJ, Venkatesh S, Ilkaveya O, Subramanian S, Manary MJ, Trehan I, Jorgensen JM, Fan Y, Henrissat B, Leyn SA, Rodionov DA, Osterman AL, Maleta KM, Newgard CB, Ashorn P, Dewey KG, Gordon JI. Gut bacteria that prevent growth impairments transmitted by microbiota from malnourished children. Science, Feb. 18, 2016.
Charbonneau MR, O’Donnell D, Blanton LV, Totten SM, Davis JCC, Barratt MJ, Cheng J, Guruge J, Talcott M, Bain JR, Muehlbauer MJ, Ilkayeva O, Wu C, Struckmeyer T, Barile D, Mangani C, Jorgensen J, Fan Y, Maleta K, Dewey KG, Ashorn P, Newgard CB, Lebrilla C, Mills DA, Gordon JI. Sialylated milk oligosaccharides promote microbiota-dependent growth in models of infant undernutrition. Cell, Feb. 18, 2016.
For more information, please contact:
Per Ashorn, professor of paediactrics, tel. +358 40 728 0354