Almost half of child deaths around the world involve malnutrition, with the highest mortality for severe acute malnutrition (SAM).
A consortium of researchers including groups from Plymouth University, University College London and Queen Mary University of London have received funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC)-led Foundation Award with support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to assess new ways to help severely malnourished children in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The research councils have together announced the first phase of health research awards from the new £1.5Bn Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), addressing issues affecting people in low and middle income countries (LMICs) using the UK's world-class research expertise. The 41 Foundation Awards led by the MRC, and supported by AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC and NERC, have been allocated to support ambitious, novel and distinctive research in non-communicable diseases and infections.
Current standard treatments can still result in around a third of malnourished children dying. One reason for this is that they have problems with their intestines which cause leaky gut. Leaky gut is a condition where the thin mucosal barrier of the gut, which plays a role in absorbing nutrients and preventing large molecules and germs from the gut entering the blood stream, becomes less effective.
The research team will assess the effectiveness of various interventions including giving bovine colostrum, the milk produced for the first days after calving, which is rich in growth factors and immune modulators for 14 days as well as assessing other therapies such as elemental diets (a special liquid diet that is easy to adsorb) and other treatments that affect inflammation and gut growth.
A key role of Professor Raymond Playford, Professor of Medicine at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry and his team who are part of this consortium will be to assess changes in leaky gut by measuring the amount of special sugars which are excreted in urine before and after these treatments, to see if they improve the strength of the gut barrier function.
Professor Raymond Playford said: "I am delighted that our collaborative group which has received this award to investigate new treatments for the most severely malnourished children, a third of whom may still die after currently-available treatments. In addition to being generally malnourished, these children have problems with their intestines, reducing their ability to absorb food and increasing gut leakiness, which allows toxins in to the blood stream. We hope that these new treatments can help reverse this and make a real difference to saving lives on a global scale in low-income countries. This award has facilitated groups from across the UK and already working in Southern Africa, notably Professor Paul Kelly and his team to work together to undertake these important studies."
Declan Mulkeen, the MRC's Chief of Strategy said: "The five research councils involved in the Foundation Awards have been working collectively to provide new and broader approaches to meet global research challenges. It's encouraging to see these projects tackling the broader environmental and economic factors affecting health, as well as using new technologies to bring cost-effective treatments within reach."
He added: "The MRC has a strong track record in Global Health research, often in partnership. Infectious disease has been the main focus and remains the largest area of funding, but as countries develop, their health needs change. The Global Challenges Research Fund will enable us to tackle a broader range of health problems, for local and global benefit. These awards represent a significant win for global research. We hope that many of the research partnerships being supported will move on to even more ambitious work over the coming years."
In order to tackle global health inequalities, high quality training for health professionals in their home countries is required. Professor Playford's team was recently awarded a grant by the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland to enhance medical training and research in Bangladesh.