Treating malnutrition by boosting gut microbes produces better results than traditional nutritional supplements.
Friendly gut bacteria have emerged as an invaluable ally in the war against malnutrition after a research study in Bangladesh showed that bacteria-targeting food supplements were more effective than standard nutritional supplements in improving the health of undernourished children.
The supplement - made from ingredients such as chickpeas, soy, bananas, and peanuts and developed to boost normal gut microbes - helped Bangladeshi children with malnutrition gain more weight than those receiving a standard nutritional supplement, the study found.
Published on 22 April in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study showed that the supplement also increased certain protein levels in the blood which are linked with the health of bone, cartilage and brain.
Last year, 144 million children were too short for their age due to malnutrition, while 47 million were too light for their height, according to the World Health Organization.
The friendly bacteria study showed that children with malnutrition have defects in the development of their gut microbiota - the bacteria, virus and fungi that are normally found in the digestive system.
According to the study, the effects of the current therapies for childhood malnutrition showed "limited efficacy" in taking care of the long-term consequences of inadequate nutrition and in repairing the gut microbiota.
In the study, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in US and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, assessed the efficacy of a food supplement they developed, called microbiota-directed complementary food prototype (MDCF-2), which targets friendly gut bacteria, in comparison to a ready-to-use supplementary food (RSUF) among slum-dwelling children aged 12-18 months in Bangladesh who had moderate acute malnutrition.
The supplements were provided twice daily for three months and after that the children were monitored for a month.
They found that children treated with the new supplement put on more weight and grew more compared with children who were just given the normal supplement.
The new supplement was linked to changes in the blood levels of 70 proteins and 21 bacterial units that influenced growth, as well as brain development.
This study demonstrated that MDCF-2 was able to repair immature microbiota, promote weight gain and increase plasma biomarkers related to bone formation, neurodevelopment, and immune function."
Ishita Mostafa, Study Author and Assistant Scientist, Nutrition and Clinical Services Division of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh
"These foods [MDCF-2], consumed during the complementary feeding period by malnourished children could provide an effective, affordable, culturally acceptable, and sustainable approach to treatment," she tells SciDev.Net.
"Larger trials will need to be performed in different geographic regions to further assess the efficacy of this therapeutic approach for treating childhood undernutrition," she says.
According to Rahuldeb Sarkar, consultant of respiratory medicine and critical care, Medway Hospital, Kent, UK, it is exciting that the new approach may promote brain development.
"We should really aim for more upstream intervention that can prevent occurrence of malnutrition in the first place. Until it is achieved, this intervention can potentially mitigate the harms associated with malnutrition to affected children," he tells SciDev.Net. "Most importantly, this new food supplement potentially promotes the brain development among undernourished children, which is exciting."