Home Quick Links Press Releases

Science recognises icddr,b and Washington University’s research on gut microbes as one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2019

Dhaka, January 6, 2020: The prestigious journal Science recognised the research achievement of icddr,b and Washington University, USA on microbes to combat malnutrition as one of the runners-up in the collection of ten biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2019 in a special issue published on November 19, 2019.

The World Health Organization reported that 52 million children under 5 years of age are wasted (low weight for height), while 17 million are severely wasted and 155 million are stunted (low height for age). Many countries will not be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for malnutrition.

Children suffering from malnutrition often fail to grow even after receiving enough to eat. As a result their brains do not develop properly and they remain susceptible to diseases for many years after. This is due to their gut microbes which remain in an immature state. Scientists from icddr,b and Washington University believe this could be the cause of poor growth – and not all foods are equally effective in solving the problem.

Together, they studied the main types of bacteria present in the healthy guts of children. They also tested which sets of foods boost these important bacterial communities in animal models. In a recently concluded trial involving 68 malnourished children aged 12-18 months living in Mirpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, the research team tested out different diets. They investigated the impact of diets on the gut microbiota, and how members of microbiota that are beneficial are affected positively. Another key outcome of this study was to see the effect of diets on proteins produced in the body of the children. Consequently, two articles were published in Science in July 2019. The findings suggest fostering the right microbes with specific nutritional supplements including green bananas, chickpeas, soybean and peanut flour could help the gut flora recover in these children. Larger scale clinical trials with diets prepared with these foods are now underway at the icddr,b.

Dr Tahmeed Ahmed, Senior Director, Nutrition and Clinical Services at icddr,b and Prof Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University have been leading this research since 2014.

Prof Gordon said the aim has been "to target microbes to heal. Microbes don't see bananas or peanuts - they just see a blend of nutrients they can use and share.”

“It wasn't yet completely clear why these foods worked best but a much larger trial was now being carried out to see if the diet had long-term effects on children's weight and height gain.” – he added.

Dr Tahmeed Ahmed said, “It appears the traditional nutrition interventions practiced in the developing countries have to be boosted with the diets developed based upon the new knowledge of the role of the gut microbiota to combat malnutrition among children and to prevent all the deadly complications.”

“If the large trials support our findings this will certainly be an excellent discovery and will strongly help addressing undernutrition in children in the developing countries.” – he added.  

Photo: The Bangladesh research team

Science is the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and one of the world's top academic journals. Science has been at the centre of important scientific discovery since its founding in 1880—with seed money from Thomas Edison.