Gordon Lab visit: childhood malnutrition

Written by Cormac Everard, undergraduate medical student at University College Dublin and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

The Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology

On June 15, we had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Dr. Jeffrey I. Gordon, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of the Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology and his team. Based in the McKinley Research Building, they run the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, and focus on exploring the secrets of our gut microbiota and its role in childhood malnutrition.

From the outset Dr. Gordon’s passion, integrity, and intellect shone  through. He spoke of the role of universities in addressing major challenges facing our world today, and encouraged each of us to go out and find a worthy cause ‘intimidating and insurmountable on one hand, but on the other truly inspiring.’  He spoke about creating an academic environment of kindness and generosity, and credited this with the success of the center.

We then heard an overview of his team’s work. Moderate malnutrition is a serious global health burden, presenting with both acute problems and long term health consequences such as stunting and developmental delay. Dr. Gordon’s team collaborates with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) to sequence the microbiota of children where the burden of disease is highest.

Excitingly, the team have identified key microbial markers of growth and maturity in healthy children, and microbiome differences in malnourished children.  Gut Microbiota may influence recovery from malnutrition, so the team aims to optimize a food therapy that would encourage the growth of a balanced gut microbiome, providing better outcomes than with current treatment. This so-called MDCF or Microbiota Directed Complementary Foods would be made locally using the correct proportions of familiar ingredients, in keeping with the culturally sensitive nature of the project.  Testimonials from team members echoed this holistic and interdisciplinary approach to global health.

Later in the evening, we had the chance to explore the Gnotobiotic Lab.  This is an impressive facility where animals such as mice are kept in completely sterile conditions with only select foods and environmental contaminants introduced to replicate the exact microbiomes of malnourished and healthy children, and discover the effects of different food therapy on these microbiomes.  Dr. Gordon’s facility is one of the largest in the country, replete with 70 isolators, almost a thousand animals and their very own mouse MRI machine.

In all I was highly impressed by the talk and visit, which confirmed the benefits of a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and culturally sensitive approach to public health.  The mix of microbiology, anthropology, and data science was both fascinating and well explained, and I am highly thankful to the Institute’s Summer Research Program for providing such a thought inspiring educational experience.