Researchers at the University of British Columbia have created an animal model that imitates the imbalances of gut microbes associated with malnutrition – a disease that is still difficult to treat and manage. By having the model at their disposal, scientists can effectively test the efficacy of treatments and the impact of malnutrition on children’s development.

The Issue Of Malnutrition

Malnutrition – a deficiency or excess of nutrients – impacts millions of individuals around the world. One-fifth of the children who die under the age of five are malnourished. The main problem is usually a lack of food or appropriate nutrients in the diet, leading to impaired cognitive growth, stunted growth, protein deficiency malnutrition, etc. The disease is strongly associated with environmental influences, which makes treatment and management extremely difficult.

According to Brett Finlay, a Professor of Microbiology and Biochemistry at UBC, and PhD student Eric Brown, devising treatment strategies is complicated because malnutrition alters the microbiota in the gut. This condition is known as ‘environmental enteropathy’ – inflammation of the small intestine – and is generally caused by ingesting pathogenic fecal bacteria, early on in life, from an external contaminated source. This causes an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, leading to reduced absorption of nutrients.

Possible Uses Of The Animal Model

Published in Nature Communications, the study explains the development of an animal model that replicates the indications associated with malnutrition and environmental enteropathy. Finlay stated that people thought treating malnutrition meant feeding the people – this assumption is wrong. He added that the animal model would allow scientists to study the modifications that occur in gut bacteria and find effective ways to fix them.

“We were able to see how a malnourished diet has a strong, measurable impact on the microbes in the small intestine”, Brown explained. He added that using the model, they could study gut microbiology and infections in greater detail.

Pathogenic bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella, cause infections that are more harmful for people suffering from malnutrition. A minor bacterial infection might result in chronic diarrhea and inflammation. This is why vaccines and treatment strategies – created by developing countries and tested on healthy populations – are often ineffective for malnourished people. With the animal model, these varied responses can be studied and new, more specific treatments can be devised.