Targeting gut microbes to treat undernourished children

Targeting gut microbes to treat undernourished children


An interdisciplinary team of investigators have undertaken a new approach for addressing the pressing global health problem of childhood malnutrition. Their approach focuses on selectively boosting key growth-promoting gut microbes using ingredients present in affordable, culturally acceptable foods.

Their work supports the notion that healthy growth of infants and children is inexorably linked to healthy development of their gut communities following birth. The results of their research are described in two reports published in the journal Science.

"We found that children who are malnourished have incompletely formed gut microbial communities compared with their healthy counterparts" said senior author. "Therefore, we set about to design therapeutic foods to repair this immaturity and to determine whether such repair would restore healthy growth."

The clinical trial included 63 Bangladeshi children, 12-18 months of age, diagnosed with moderate acute malnutrition, meaning the children were ill but not close to death. The children were randomly assigned to one of four treatment groups. Children in three of the groups each received one of the three newly designed therapeutic foods, while those in the fourth group received a standard therapeutic food that was not designed based on a consideration of its effects on the gut microbiome.

All foods for the trial were locally produced at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research. Children were brought twice daily to a nutritional rehabilitation center, where the therapeutic foods were administered by their mothers under the supervision of health-care workers. A set of measuring tools, developed through advances in genomic medicine, provided a new, much more comprehensive definition of molecular features associated with malnutrition, its underlying mechanisms, and the effectiveness of treatment.

One of the therapeutic foods stood out from the rest, even in this relatively short one-month trial. Measuring 1,300 blood proteins, including those intimately involved in directing bone growth, development of the brain, immune function, and metabolism in various tissues, revealed that this food prototype had produced a pronounced shift toward a healthy state compared with what was observed in the other three groups of children.

At the end of the study, the researchers also found that, unlike in the three other treatment groups, the gut microbial communities residing in the intestines of children receiving this lead therapeutic food had undergone a reconfiguration and more closely resembled microbial communities found in age-matched healthy children living in the same locale. This formulation contained, among other components, a mixture of nutrients from chickpea, soy, bananas and peanuts.

The new microbiome-directed therapeutic foods developed by the Washington University and International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research team emanated from their earlier studies of gut microbial community development in healthy children living in Bangladesh. Several years ago, the team discovered that children with malnutrition had immature gut communities - ones that appeared younger than their age-matched healthy counterparts. The authors noted that several years ago they found that conventional therapeutic foods failed to repair this immaturity in the malnourished children they had treated.

The group went on to transplant immature communities from malnourished children, and normally maturing communities from healthy children, into mice that had been raised under sterile conditions. The results revealed that immature communities were associated with reduced weight gain, defective bone development plus abnormal metabolic and immune functions in the recipient animals. These findings provided early evidence that failure to form a normal microbial community may be a cause rather than simply an effect of malnutrition.

This study provides the first evidence that a therapeutic food, developed specifically to support growth and expansion of gut microbes linked to healthy microbiome development, has beneficial effects outside the gut related to many aspects of healthy growth. These effects involve key mediators of metabolism, and of bone, brain and immune system development -- organ systems that have been very difficult to repair in malnourished children by supplementing their diet with traditional therapeutic foods.

In first of the two papers describe how they first used germ-free mice, and then germ-free piglets, colonized with gut microbial community members from Bangladeshi children to screen a series of diets comprised of complementary food ingredients used in Bangladesh. They formulated Microbiome-Directed Complementary Food prototypes that could repair immature microbial communities from malnourished Bangladeshi children in both these animal models and improve the health of the animals. These prototypes then were tested in the double-blind controlled feeding study described above.

In the second paper, the authors describe development of new computational methods, based on methods originally developed by the field of econophysics to analyze how fluctuations in the economy affect features of complex, dynamic financial markets. The approach provided new, generally applicable ways of characterizing the organization of human gut communities -- their normal development, how they are perturbed in disease states such as malnutrition, and how they respond to therapeutic interventions designed to repair them.

"The goal of human microbiome research is not simply to describe the component parts of a microbial community but rather to characterize how the components interact with one another to shape community functions," the senior author said. "Complicating matters, the number of possible interactions between the components in a gut community is literally astronomical."

Studying the microbiomes of healthy Bangladeshi children sampled monthly from birth through five years, and using the new computational method, they identified a network of 15 gut bacterial community members that consistently interacted with one another. They named this network an ecogroup. The components of the ecogroup provided an accurate way of describing normal gut development of infants and children living in Bangladesh as well as several other low-income countries. It further served as a sensitive and accurate way of determining how severely disrupted microbial communities are in children with moderate and severe malnutrition, and the degree to which they are repaired with various treatments.

"A longer and larger clinical trial is currently underway at two sites in Bangladesh to see if the new Microbiome-Directed Complementary Food has sustained benefits," the author said. "This trial includes children with moderate malnutrition as well as children with severe malnutrition treated with conventional therapy but left with incompletely repaired microbiomes, stunting and various other growth impairments."

https://medicine.wustl.edu/news/for-malnourished-children-new-type-of-therapy-boosts-gut-microbes-healthy-development/

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6449/eaau4732

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6449/eaau4735

http://sciencemission.com/site/index.php?page=news&type=view&id=publications%2Fa-sparse-covarying-unit&filter=22

http://sciencemission.com/site/index.php?page=news&type=view&id=publications%2Feffects-of-microbiota&filter=22

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