Around the world, nearly 180 million children are stunted and malnutrition is to blame. The problem is big but researchers are turning to small-scale solutions for answers.

How small? Think microscopic.

According to studies published in the journals Science and Cell, gut microbes have a role to play in nutrition so they may also play a part in addressing stunting in children. This is based on preliminary results showing that, in the right combination, microbes can promote healthy growth, even when calories are limited.

The studies, both led by Dr. Jeffrey Gordon from the University of Washington in St. Louis, were carried out using mice models by an international team of researchers. While the Science study points at underdeveloped gut microbes as the cause of malnutrition in children and names specific microbes responsible for healthy growth, the Cell study shows that a component in breast milk interacts with microbes in the gut that promotes healthy metabolism and growth in malnourished children.

Providing a microscopic look at human development, these studies hint at possible new ways to address malnutrition by focusing on gut microbes to promote healthy growth.

"Current ‘ready-to-use' therapeutic foods have reduced mortality from malnutrition, but these children continue to show lingering long-term effects," says Gordon. Aside from stunting, these effects include impaired immune systems and dysfunctional neurodevelopment.

Researchers in the Science study cultured microbes from malnourished children and added Clostridium symbiosum and Ruminococcus gnavus to the mix. They then gave this mix to mice that have previously received gut microbes from malnourished children and saw that the mice corrected abnormalities in metabolism and impairments in growth.

The researchers in the Cell study had a hard time obtaining human breast milk in large quantities so they looked for sialic acid-carrying sugars in milk from cows. They found that the sugars are 20-fold lower in concentration in milk from bovine sources. The sugars were purified from whey produced in cheese manufacturing and then fed to mice with gut bacteria from a malnourished child.

Compared to mice with the same diet, mice given sialylated bovine milk oligosaccharides (S-BMOs) grew better, the researchers report. However, they also note that S-BMOs are only effective in the presence of gut microbes as positive effects disappeared when the sugars were administered to germ-free mice.

With these findings, Gordon says the next step is to actively pursue developing food interventions directed at microbiomes to enhance the beneficial effects of gut microbes that promote growth.

Photo: GlaxoSmithKline | Flickr

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