Genetics of Malnutrition
There is no health problem more important than that of malnutrition in young children. Poor nutrition is linked to more than half of all child deaths worldwide. Nearly one third of children in the developing world are malnourished. Malnutrition in the first 2 years of life leads to irreversible damage to cognitive function and physical capacity, and is transmitted between generations as malnourished mothers give birth to low birth weight children. Stunting affects about one third of children under age 5 and occurs in large part in the critical age window from -9 to +24 months. Currently known interventions, if extended to all children, are still only predicted to reduce the incidence of stunting by approximately 1/3, highlighting the need for a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms that contribute to growth faltering.
We are exploring the hypothesis that genetic factors may contribute to a child’s risk of stunting in an environmental context of poor sanitation and endemic disease. To address this hypothesis, we are carrying out a genome-wide association study (GWAS) in a well characterized cohort of children recruited in Dhaka, Bangladesh who, as part of the study will receive nutritional supplementation and medical treatment. Our genetic studies will then seek to identify those factors that determine how well a child responds to intervention. Knowledge of these genetic risk factors can potentially direct more targeted interventions as well as suggest novel approaches to addressing the problem of malnutrition.
These studies are not possible without the collaboration of a number of colleagues here at University of Virginia (William Petri, Stephen Rich, Joe Mychaleckyj) as well as in Bangladesh (Tahmeed Ahmed, Rashidul Haque).