2016 Articles and Releases

Reversing Effects of Childhood Malnutrition

The tens of trillions of microbes living in the gut are major players in human health. So-called friendly intestinal bacteria promote health, but disruptions in our resident microbes also have been linked to childhood malnutrition, an underlying cause of death for some 2.7 million children annually.

Now, two studies published Feb. 18 — one in Science and the other in Cell — both led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, show that effects of gut bacteria reach far beyond the gastrointestinal tract, influencing development of distant tissues, including muscle, bone and brain. Further, the research indicates that manipulating the makeup of microbes in the gut has the potential to provide new ways to treat and ultimately help prevent childhood malnutrition.

Both studies, led by Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor, director of Washington University’s Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology and member of the CDI board of managers, involved an international team of scientists and were carried out in germ-free mice with gut microbes transferred from either healthy or malnourished young children living in Malawi, in Africa. Collaborators included the University of California at Davis, University of Malawi, University of Tampere and Duke University, among other institutions.

The Science study implicates underdeveloped gut microbial communities as a cause of childhood malnutrition, rather than an effect, and  identifies specific microbes that direct healthy growth. The study in Cell demonstrates that a component of human breast milk interacts with gut microbes in ways that may help promote healthy growth and metabolism in malnourished children.

“This research provides a microbial view of human development and suggests potential new therapies for malnutrition that target gut microbes in order to promote healthy growth,” said Gordon, who also directs Washington University’s Center for Gut Microbiome and Nutrition Research. “Current ‘ready-to-use’ therapeutic foods have reduced mortality from malnutrition, but these children continue to show lingering long-term effects, including stunted growth, impaired neurodevelopment and dysfunctional immune systems.”

Work by Gordon’s team reveals likely explanations for these persistent maladies: a failure of a malnourished child’s gut microbial community — known as the microbiota — to develop along a normal, healthy trajectory, and a failure of current treatments to permanently repair and restore proper functions mediated by gut microbes, such as synthesizing vitamins and nutrients. Read more...

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