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Researcher takes creative approach to solving child nutrition issue

A University of Toledo professor has an idea to solve the problem of chronic diarrhea, a large cause of infant mortality in developing countries, that is so simple it might just work.

Dr. Hironori Matsushima, left, and Dr. Akira Takashima look at a culture dish to see if the antimicrobial proteins can kill bacteria. The researchers plan to incorporate those proteins into a powdered milk that would help solve the problem of chronic diarrhea in children of developing countries.

Dr. Hironori Matsushima, left, and Dr. Akira Takashima look at a culture dish to see if the antimicrobial proteins can kill bacteria. The researchers plan to incorporate those proteins into a powdered milk that would help solve the problem of chronic diarrhea in children of developing countries.

Dr. Hironori Matsushima, a research assistant professor in the UT Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, proposes a powdered milk that could be produced with antimicrobial proteins allowing it to be mixed with virtually any water source and be safe to drink. And this enhanced milk would kill the pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella that cause diarrhea, the problem that is responsible for 1.5 million children under the age of 5 dying every year in developing countries.

Not only would it provide the necessary proteins to prevent gastrointestinal bacterial infections that lead to digestive problems, but the powdered milk product also would provide necessary nutrition to these young children.

“I had never really thought of diarrhea as such a serious problem, but it is for children in developing countries,” Matsushima said. “I started to think about how to help and came up with this idea. It really could be a relatively easy solution to a widespread problem.”

It’s a much less expensive approach than providing antibiotics to these countries or attempting a complete overhaul of water resources for cleaner drinking and food options, said Dr. Akira Takashima, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, who is assisting Matsushima with the research.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also saw merit in the idea and awarded a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant that promotes innovation in global health.

UT’s project is one of 78 grants awarded in the fourth round of the initiative that helps scientists explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve health in developing countries.

So how exactly would the correct antimicrobial proteins get into the powdered milk to help the children? It starts with the cows.

Matsushima and Takashima explain that mammals are capable of producing antibiotics, so the plan is to engineer cows to produce milk containing human antibiotics, specifically the peptidoglycan recognition protein-1. The milk from those transgenic cows will be turned into powdered milk that can be stored for long periods without refrigeration.

When that milk is mixed with water and ingested, those human antimicrobial proteins will work with the stomach acids to combat bacteria that would otherwise cause diarrhea.

Matsushima, with Takashima and doctoral student Yi Yao, first will test the antibiotic proteins in the lab against common pathogens to confirm it is the best to counteract those bacteria and will work successfully in the powdered milk form.

If successful, the team will pursue additional funding to test the concept in mice and then cows.

“Simple is the best,” Takashima said. “This is really a creative and interesting approach that could address the massive problem of chronic diarrhea in these young children and at the same time provide a nutritious and preventive care method with continued drinking of this milk. It could indeed be a breakthrough.”

The funding from the Gates Foundation program is a highly competitive process with nearly 2,700 proposals submitted for this round. Scientists such as Matsushima who received the awards represent 18 countries on six continents.

“The winners of these grants show the bold thinking we need to tackle some of the world’s greatest health challenges,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “I’m excited about their ideas and look forward to seeing some of these exploratory projects turn into life-saving breakthroughs.”

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