The West African Sahel region is a corner of the world that Steven Maranz, PhD, knows well.
He spent part of his childhood there and worked with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in the region. Maranz is currently a visiting scientist with the David H. Murdock Research Institute, a provider of collaborative and contract research services located on the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis.
His appreciation for the culture in Western Africa as well as a concern for the debilitating health issues plaguing the region led him to research the potential of a microbial approach to issues of malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency. An idea that is moving from concept to reality thanks to the support of a Bill and Melinda Gates Challenge grant.
He is researching microbes that can be added to foods to produce the carotenoids the human body needs to make vitamin A. When carotenoids are consumed in foods like carrots, sweet potato, squash and cantaloupe, the body is able to produce vitamin A, which promotes healthy vision and immune function. When there is a vitamin A deficiency, health problems like stunting result.
Due to malnutrition, at least 165 million children under the age of five worldwide are stunted, according to a joint 2011 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization and the World Bank. These children experience additional health disabilities such as childhood blindness and are more susceptible to diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia, which are two of the leading causes of childhood death in the world. For the children that survive into adulthood, their poor health and smaller stature can cause continued economic hardship.
Obtaining cartenoid-rich foods is difficult. For one reason, the dry season in the West African Sahel region lasts up to nine months. Since most people do not have access to irrigation, there is only a three month window to grow fruits and vegetables.
Public health programs can help. “They are limited by funding and the ability to consistently reach children to provide them with vegetables or Vitamin A shots. The shots are only effective for six months before they have to be updated,” Maranz emphasized. “By understanding the circumstances under which people live, I understand which resources are available to them and where there are bottlenecks. It gives me real insight.”
Insight that led him to consider traditional African yogurt as a delivery mechanism for the carotenoid-producing microbes. This yogurt is not like the kind found in an American grocery store. As Maranz described it, traditional African yogurt is more of a drink that children as well as adults eat regularly.
“There is a tradition of preparing yogurt in Africa so I thought that would be a great delivery vehicle for the pro-vitamin A microbes that once in the human body will help produce the beta carotene needed to make Vitamin A,” he said. “There are many other food products that humans prepare around the planet that involve microorganism- soy products, sauerkraut, pickles. So I’m also expanding my options beyond yogurt.”
Maranz is concentrating on identifying the strains of microbes to use. “I’m looking at microbes that already make these carotenoids that are found in nature,” he said, “and there are actually many of them. I have some promising strains that would be safe for human use and am testing them right now.”
His tests are to determine factors like how much beta carotene a particular type of microbe produces and when in their life cycle they produce it. He is also looking at the ability of the microbes to survive and reproduce in the human gut.
Collaborating with TinChung Leung, PhD, with the North Carolina Central University Nutrition Research Program at the NCRC, Maranz is able to use a zebrafish model to test the effects of vitamin A supplementation via microbes. Zebrafish have similarities to humans that make them a unique model system for research.
“The zebrafish facility is a great resource to have,” Maranz commented. “The zebrafish cycle is fast and you get results very quickly when testing health-related solutions.”
As Maranz’ grant is nearing an end, he will apply for Phase II funding from the Gates Foundation and is looking at other funding options as well. He is intent on continuing his research and is determined to move the project into field testing as soon as results allow so that a practical answer to malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency can be made available to people who need it.