Global collaborative research project to bolster early-life microbiome knowledge

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Pilin Petunyia
Getty | Pilin Petunyia

Related tags Research Probiotics Infant nutrition Prebiotics Gut health microbiome

Global nutrition and research leaders have joined forces in a public-private partnership to develop a novel integrated in-vitro, ex-vivo and AI research model which is hoped to have huge implications for the infant nutrition industry.

The €700,000 project, named ‘Fontanelle’, brings together Netherlands’ research and tech organisation TNO, nutrition giant Mead Johnson Greater China, French manufacturer Adare Pharmaceuticals SAS, and Dutch feed research organisation Schothorst, in a joint vision to develop an integrated approach to test the immune health implications of microbiome modulators in infants and young piglets.

The partnership will address the all-important first 1,000 days of life through advanced integration of in vitro​ and ex vivo model platforms of the early life gastrointestinal tract, representing the main pillars of gut health: gut physiology (incl. intestinal barrier function), gut microbiome, and gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) immune response.

Nicolette Pouw, senior business development manager at TNO, explains the project will adapt the existing InTESTine​ and iScreen platform technologies, which use fresh and early life gut tissue samples and infant microbial communities.

“We are very excited about the project. We are developing a model that will benefit several industries that are all trying to have an impact on gut health in early life. The first 1,000 days of life is crucially important and the window of opportunity to develop a healthy gut so the child can develop a good immune system, closure of leaky gut, and build gut integrity.

“Currently there are several research models in this space using cell lines and microbial models but there is no combination approach providing a chain of models to address the three key pillars of gut health and how these impact the immune system.

“This approach will combine the microbiome model with intestinal tissue from piglets – which is comparable to a human infant’s – to allow us to see what is actually happening in the gut tissue itself.”

Using the outcomes of the in vitro and ex vivo model platforms, the project will apply predictive artificial intelligence (AI) modelling to evaluate potential systemic and local immune effects. All data will be integrated and subjected to statistical analyses to generate a visualisation tool, named ‘gut health space model’, to evaluate and visualise the gut health enhancing effects of early life nutrition.

Pouw explains: “The results derived from the microbiome platform and the tissue platform can be combined in an AI early life immune network to look at which pathways are being addressed – is it possible an allergy will develop in later life, or is it affecting the immune system in a positive way? We can look at the pathways and visualise these pathways using a 3D gut health model to show how health has shifted.”

As this is non-competitive research, all findings from the research will be made public via scientific publications, for the benefit of the wider scientific community and infant nutrition industry.

This model will provide huge time and cost savings as clinical trials come with ethical, financial and logistical barriers, explains Pouw.

She notes that this is a game changer in the feed industry too, where piglet health is fragile and leads to huge financial loss as well as health implications for humans due to excessive antibiotic use.

Although the model has been created for the testing of infant health, Pouw notes that it will also be of use for other life stages.

Other industry partners are welcome to join the project if testing the same end points, or there Is the option to create separate public-private partnerships for the testing of new end points.


Initially set up as a body of the Dutch government 90 years ago, TNO is now a privatised independent research and technology organisation (RTO).

While still conducting some work for the Dutch government, the organisation also works to drive innovation which has a positive public health impact through research collaborations and public-private partnerships – in which the private company funds a certain amount, and this is matched by the government.

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