Sanford Burnham Prebys research plays a key role in developing microbiome-directed complementary food to help save malnourished children

| Written by Scott LaFee
A Bangladeshi mother and child in the Nutritional Rehabilitation Unit of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Hospital in Dhaka.
A Bangladeshi mother and child in the Nutritional Rehabilitation Unit of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Hospital in Dhaka.

Among the consequences of childhood malnutrition is the underdevelopment of their gut microbiomes, critical to human health, from innate immunity to appetite and energy metabolism.

Although malnourished children gain some weight and grow better when fed a nutrient-rich diet, they do not catch up to their well-fed counterparts—and their gut microbiomes do not recover.

In a 2021 clinical trial, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine showed how a newly designed therapeutic food—a unique mix of peanuts, bananas and other foods dubbed microbiome-directed complementary food, or MDCF—more effectively nourished healthy gut microbial communities than standard dietary supplements.

Now, with bioinformatics support from Andrei L. Osterman, Ph.D., professor in the Immunity and Pathogenesis and Cancer Metabolism and Microenvironment programs at Sanford Burnham Prebys  and his colleagues Dmitry Rodionov, Ph.D., and Alex Arzamasov, the multi-institutional scientific team has published new research that identifies and describes the bioactive elements of microbiome-directed food.

“These are naturally occurring carbohydrate structures that could, in theory, be recovered in large quantities from the by-product streams of food manufacturing and be used to produce prebiotics,” said senior study author Jeffrey I. Gordon, M.D., the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor at Washington University.

“We also have identified the microbes that process these food components, and in theory, there is potential for the organisms themselves to be part of a therapeutic intervention in children completely lacking these beneficial gut microbes.”

Osterman’s lab contributed bioinformatics analyses of 1,000 new metagenomically assembled genomes, or MAGs, representing the gut microbiomes of healthy Bangladeshi infants. The analyses included genome-based inference of the presence or absence in these MAGs of functional metabolic pathways for 106 major nutrients and intermediary metabolites.

“These predictions enabled the assessment of the microbiome-wide representation or enrichment of dietary carbohydrate utilization capabilities across numerous biospecimens from a randomized, controlled trial of MDCF in Bangladeshi children with moderate acute malnutrition,” said Osterman.

“The analyses helped elucidate glycan components of MDCF metabolized by bacterial taxa that are positively associated with healthy weight growth. The knowledge will help guide the therapeutic use of current MDCF and enable development of new formulations."

Childhood undernutrition is a global scourge. In 2020, an estimated 149 million children under the age of 5 had stunted growth (low height for age), and 45 million exhibited stunting (low weight for height). More than 30 million children worldwide have moderate, acute malnutrition.

Undernutrition and its consequences are the leading causes of disease and death for children in this age range. An estimated 3 million children die each year due to poor nutrition and hunger.

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