The Grand Challenges Explorations Grant will help Cork’s Professor Douwe van Sinderen and Dr Jennifer Mahony conduct a first phase 18-month pilot project in collaboration with Dr Marco Ventura of the University of Parma in Italy.
The researchers are currently in discussion with a Malawian hospital to help recruit the parents of 25-40 babies, who will be asked to provide infant faecal samples at various points during the child’s first six months.
Using these samples the researchers will explore how naturally occurring viruses called ‘phages’ may influence the balance of ‘good bacteria’ like Bifidobacteria and potentially fight harmful bacteria such as enterotoxigenic E.coli (ETEC) and Shigella.
Speaking with NutraIngredients, Dr Mahony said the study was exploring unknown academic territory.
“To date we know that bacterial viruses can alter the health-promoting bacteria landscape in the human gut but we have little or no information regarding the relationship between bacterial viruses of health-limiting bacteria in the gut.
“Therefore, this study will bring together the entire relationship between bacterial viruses and how they can alter the numbers of the good and bad bacteria in the infant gut in a way that has not been assessed before.“
The results could have massive implications for the health of vulnerable children in developing countries.
“By isolating bacterial viruses that specifically infect the ‘bad bacteria’ we hope to encourage the growth of health promoting bacteria,” said Mahony, who has worked in the field of bacterial virus research for 15 years.
“Ultimately this will enable us to develop essential tools to promote health, combat infections and help to prevent needless infant deaths in developing countries as all children’s lives are equally invaluable irrespective of geography.”
The age group of the children was chosen because of the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation for exclusive breast-feeding until at least the age of six months old.
“Early weaning [the process of moving from milk alone to solid food] in developing countries where sanitary conditions may be poor may lead to the introduction of microorganisms such as Shigella, which can cause intestinal infections and in extreme cases may be fatal,” she told us.
“0.8 million infant deaths in developing countries could be avoided annually according to UNICEF if exclusive breast-feeding is continued to the sixth month of life.”
Back to basics
While the research was novel, the idea of harnessing naturally occurring viruses was not necessarily new, she said.
“Bacterial viruses are an old tool to treat infections that became obsolete when antibiotics were developed in the last century but are now having a revival as antibiotic-resistant bugs are becoming problematic and are not readily available to many individuals in developing countries.”
The WHO says antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health today.
“Antibiotic resistance leads to higher medical costs, prolonged hospital stays and increased mortality,” it said in the past.
“In the European Union alone, drug-resistant bacteria are estimated to cause 25,000 deaths and cost more than US$1.5 billion [€1.34bn] every year in healthcare expenses and productivity losses.”
The Grand Challenges Explorations Grant is a $100m (€89.49 m) fund launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008.
Since then over 1186 projects in over 61 countries have received such grants.
The scheme awards an initial grant of $100,000 (€89,485) twice a year with a possible follow-on grant of up to $1m (€0.9m) for successful projects.
“It’s not often that researchers get the opportunity to work on a project that has such far-reaching implications and that may contribute a fair and equal society,” Dr Mahony told us.
“As a scientist and a parent, I am really proud to be associated with this project and we’re very grateful to the Gates Foundation for funding this exploratory research.”