The Wasting and Stunting Technical Interest Group: Generating Evidence to Challenge the Divide in Nutrition
Despite improvements in children’s nutrition over the past few decades, undernutrition remains a huge threat to the health and life of infants and young children worldwide. Health and nutrition actors have usually approached the problems of children being wasted, (thinner than they should be) and children who are stunted (shorter than they should be) as different outcomes of undernutrition with different causes and different interventions. Facilitated by the Emergency Nutrition Network (ENN), since 2014 the Wasting and Stunting Technical Interest Group (WaSt TIG) has challenged this view, and has begun to work to provide evidence for a unified approach to tackling these two outcomes of undernutrition.
Despite the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’, cooperation is common in life – from the scale of genes or cells through to entire societies. Although these two ideas seem to contradict each other, Dr Egbert Giles Leigh Jr has demonstrated throughout his career at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama that working together has been the key to the success of multicellular life. Here, he explains his view of how competition and cooperation both played essential roles in bringing forth productive, diverse ecosystems.
Are we alone in the universe? Searching for life beyond our Solar System is one of the most ambitious efforts humans have ever undertaken. Because we do not have the ability to travel to distant exoplanets, scientists must rely on indirect clues that could help us find extraterrestrial life. Dr Edward Schwieterman and his colleagues at the University of California, Riverside, have been developing advanced methods to determine the habitability of planets and detect the elusive signs of life from afar.
Great advances in the field of science and medicine have seen treatments and cures developed for some of the worst diseases ever known. Despite this, the potentially devastating, but sadly common occurrence of preterm birth is not yet preventable. Dr Iain Buxton at the University of Nevada, USA, has been studying the role of the smooth muscle of the uterus to elucidate its role in preterm labour and birth. His research is paving the way for the development of much-needed interventions to prevent early birth.
Dr Vijaya Raghavan – Developing Food Processing Methods Through Scientific and Engineering Solutions
The food processing industry generates enormous quantities of waste every year. On top of this, the way that food is processed can have negative impacts on the health of consumers. Therefore, it is vitally important to develop new food processing methods that consider human health while producing minimal waste. Dr Vijaya Raghavan and his research group at McGill University, Montreal, have been applying their expertise in chemistry and engineering to develop and optimise food processing techniques, to ensure the future health of people and the environment.
Mutations affecting the expression of cone photoreceptors can lead to retinal degeneration, which in many cases can result in a permanent loss of vision. However, preclinical models for human retinal degenerative diseases are lacking. Dr Zi-Bing Jin and his colleagues study rhesus macaque models of achromatopsia (a congenital disorder characterised by an inability to distinguish colours) and oculocutaneous albinism (characterised by a disorder of melanin synthesis, leading to loss of visual acuity). The animal models utilised in the Jin laboratory offer important opportunities for studies on disease mechanisms as well as therapeutic development.
Dr Susanne M. Jaeggi, Dr Anja Pahor and Dr Aaron R. Seitz – Moving Beyond ‘One-size-fits-all’ Brain Training Solutions
Brain training allows us to improve our cognition in the same way that gym workouts improve our physical health. The ultimate goal is transferable learning, which improves performance in real-world activities beyond the original training tasks. Dr Susanne M. Jaeggi, Dr Anja Pahor and Dr Aaron R. Seitz from the University of California Irvine and Riverside, are collectively driving forward exciting advances in brain training, as well as addressing the controversy surrounding its effectiveness and limitations. Above all, they aim to understand the key ingredients for creating successful interventions.
Water is vital to sustaining human life and the contamination of drinking water can lead to disease and death. Dr Steve E. Hrudey from the University of Alberta’s Division of Analytical & Environmental Toxicology has identified the challenges of providing safe drinking water and clarified misconceptions regarding threats to drinking water safety. Based on his research findings, he has provided critical recommendations for the provision of safe drinking water to protect public health.
Dr Evelyne Deplazes – Combining Simulations & Experiments to Explore Interactions Between Membranes & Small Molecules
Many important processes in our bodies rely on the transport of small molecules and ions across cell membranes. However, these processes can be extremely intricate and complex, and are frustratingly difficult to study. Dr Evelyne Deplazes and her team at the University of Queensland and the University of Technology have been investigating these processes by combining the best elements of experimental and computational membrane biophysics. This research could help us better understand the way our bodies work, with exciting implications for biotechnology and drug development.
A transcription factor known as Early B-Cell Factor 1 (EBF1) is key to the formation of fat cells, called adipocytes. Although it is also active in mature adipocytes, the function of EBF1 at this stage has been unclear. Dr Michael Griffin at Sam Houston State University in Texas is investigating how EBF1 is involved in the process of adipose tissue inflammation caused by obesity. This type of inflammation is believed to be the underlying cause of a multitude of diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer.
Dr Natalia Sira – A Holistic Approach to Health Necessitates a Deeper Understanding of Human Development
Connecting body and mind through the consideration of both the physical and psychological components of health helps determine our reactions and developmental behaviour. Furthermore, the ways in which we achieve our optimal developmental potential manage how well we can adapt and cope with changes in our environment, deal with stresses in life and maintain overall well-being. Dr Natalia Sira from East Carolina University is improving patient care by taking a holistic and individualised approach to health outcomes, treatment and rehabilitation, focusing on the role of family relationships, developmental needs and spirituality as important components of coping mechanisms.
Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide and understanding the development of the disease is essential for prevention and treatment. Dr T. Colin Campbell from Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences proposes the intriguing theory that cancer is not primarily a genetic disease but a nutrition-responsive disease. By conducting numerous animal and human studies, he is providing convincing evidence on the importance of diet, particularly the consumption of animal-based protein, in the development of cancer.
Environmental factors and genetics both play a part in how our brains function, whether that be in a healthy or disordered manner. Understanding the processes by which mental health disorders arise is an important step in developing effective therapies. Dr Jyoti Mishra founded NEATLabs at the University of California, San Diego, to work towards this goal. Her exciting research is advancing cognitive brain mapping to investigate brain functions as well as novel digital therapeutics that are personalised to individual needs.
Insects are one of the most important – and ancient – groups of organisms. They were around long before dinosaurs roamed the planet and before plants evolved flowers. Fossils from millions of years ago are a priceless record of ancient insects, helping scientists to piece together the evolutionary history of modern species. Insects contained in amber and sedimentary deposits can give us valuable clues about their life histories and ecology. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History curator and researcher, Dr Conrad Labandeira, has been examining the insect fossil record to answer important questions with implications for today’s living species.
Genome editing offers huge benefits in both healthcare and agriculture. Therefore, developing new and improved tools for editing the genomes of humans, animals and plants is a rapidly growing area of research. Dr Rosa Di Felice and her team from the University of Southern California are helping to further this effort by performing computational simulations that support experimentalists in their search. They are particularly interested in studying the mechanisms involved in gene editing using enzymes, to find out how their precision can be improved.
Advancements in genetic technologies have made precise gene editing a reality. Used extensively to develop crops that exhibit higher yields and resistance to pests and diseases, genetic modification could also transform livestock production. Building on decades of animal cloning research, Dr Mark Westhusin from the Reproductive Sciences Laboratory at Texas A&M University is using genetic and reproductive technologies to improve livestock for food, medicine, and medical research.
As complex living organisms, plants can often display intricate interactions with the air inside and around them. So far, however, many characteristics of these processes have gone largely unexplored. In their research, Charlotte Coates and Dr Peter Kevan at the University of Guelph combine field surveys with advanced imaging technologies to study the ‘micrometeorology’ that takes place in and around the stems and flowers of many plants. Their discoveries are shedding new light on how these plants grow and reproduce, and how some species are providing ideal habitats for ecologically damaging insects.
The incidence of pancreatic disease, including pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer, is on the rise, but currently, preventative measures and effective treatments are scarce. Dr Stephen Pandol at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is working to change this. Dr Pandol carries out broad and far-reaching research, ranging from how lifestyle factors impact pancreatic disease to the molecular and cellular mechanisms behind pancreatic cancer resulting from obesity. His dedicated work has led to significant progress in the field and is driving forward the potential for better patient outcomes.
Neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) are a complex group of diseases that profoundly impact the human population, emerging during brain development but often affecting individuals throughout their lives. Human models of NDDs are needed, as many aspects of both the human genome sequence and brain development are human-specific and not recapitulated in animal models. Dr Kristen Kroll, in the Department of Developmental Biology at Washington University School of Medicine, has spent her career modelling neural development and identifying how its disruption can contribute to NDDs.
Decades of research indicate that mental health conditions and psychiatric disorders have a strong genetic basis. Expanding our understanding of mental health by encompassing a more systemic approach may help us improve both diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Chunyu Liu and his team from SUNY Upstate Medical University are using big data to discover the genetic and molecular changes in the brain that occur with different psychiatric disorders. His studies are helping us understand the diversity of human behaviour and develop new methods to treat mental health conditions.
Attention disorders range from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to multitasking difficulties due to aging. Regardless of the cause, such difficulties can have a negative impact on peoples’ lives. Dr Adam Gazzaley from the University of California San Francisco has carried out extensive research exploring how customized technology can be utilized to strengthen attention capabilities in individuals across the lifespan. His work has driven him to develop innovative technology companies and software as well as educate us on the benefits of experimental medicine.
The presentation and characteristics of cancer in dogs often resemble those seen in people. This observation led Dr Elinor Karlsson, based at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to consider whether these pets could be a good model to study the disease in humans. Dr Karlsson, along with an established multidisciplinary team of collaborators, is working to identify the similarities between cancers in humans and dogs and translate this into better therapeutic approaches for both species.
At least 820 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition globally and human population growth is likely to exacerbate this problem in the future. It is becoming increasingly important to develop sustainable and efficient methods to meet food demands. To address this global issue, Dr Sanju A. Sanjaya and Bagyalakshmi Muthan from West Virginia State University and their colleagues from Michigan State University have developed genetic technologies to improve the nutritional and energy content of crops. Their technology could increase production and improve profitability and sustainability across a range of important crop plants.
Neurodevelopmental disorders range from those on the relatively common autism spectrum to much rarer disorders such as KDM5C-disorder and Weidemann-Steiner Syndrome. Exciting advancements in human genetics have shown that histones – the proteins our DNA wraps around – play a vital role in healthy brain development. Dr Shigeki Iwase from the University of Michigan studies how mutations in the enzymes that regulate histone structure and function can cause cognitive disorders. His work has led to important new discoveries, including how counterpart enzymes can be utilised for therapies.
As medicine progresses, new techniques are needed to visualise abnormal extracellular structures with greater specificity and resolution. Currently, there is a clear lack of molecular tools to image extracellular structures with the detail needed for early diagnosis of various medical conditions. Based at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the Collaborative Research Centre 1340 represents a large collaboration of researchers from institutions across Berlin, who are working to establish new methods for medical imaging and research at the anatomical and molecular levels.
Domestic herbivores – such as cattle, sheep, and goats – are remarkably important to ecosystems. Their feeding behaviours aid the management of natural habitats by preventing any individual plant species dominating the landscape. Thus, understanding livestock dietary preferences is vital for informing land management decisions. Dr John Walker from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center has devoted his career to exploring livestock dietary preferences, and how they can be manipulated to benefit rangelands. His ‘Aggie Cedar Eater’ (ACE) goats are now helping to control invasive juniper shrubs across the Great Plains of the US.
How to support the expanding human population is one of the greatest societal challenges in the 21st century. To meet the demand for food, fuel and fibre, agricultural productivity will need to dramatically increase. However, to ensure long-term sustainability and resilience, increased productivity must not sacrifice the health of the surrounding ecosystems. Led by Dr Dennis Busch and Dr Andrew Cartmill, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Agro-Ecosystem Research Program draws on the expertise of local and international collaborating scientists and farmers to develop alternative agricultural practices that support sustainable intensification for future food security.
The Galapagos Islands are facing increasing danger. Local and global forces – including tourism and climate change – threaten the fragile island ecosystems. The high number of unique plants and animals on the islands means that the loss of a Galapagos species may represent a global extinction event. The Galapagos Initiative, founded by Dr Stephen Walsh of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr Carlos Mena of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, aims to save the Galapagos Islands with an innovative, sustainable strategy combining evidence from key interdisciplinary projects and a robust mapping and modelling program.
The bacteria that causes fire blight in apple and pear trees is notoriously difficult to control without antibiotics. With new regulations in the US preventing antibiotic use in organic orchards after 2014, organic farmers faced an impossible choice – lose their organic certification or risk the death of their trees. Working against the clock, plant pathologist Dr Kenneth Johnson from Oregon State University accelerated his efforts to provide organic farmers with another option. With his team of researchers and outreach specialists, he developed and evaluated non-antibiotic management strategies for fire blight in organic apple and pear orchards.
While antibiotics have transformed modern medicine, helped to extend life expectancy in the UK by as much as 20 years and saved millions of lives around the world, the rapid rise of resistance to these drugs presents an imminent global health disaster if not adequately managed in the very near future. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Professor Colin Garner, founder and Chief Executive of Antibiotic Research UK, the world’s first charity focussing on bacterial antibiotic resistance, to hear about their vital efforts targeted at overcoming the challenge of antibiotic resistance.
Founded in 1992, Alzheimer’s Research UK is the UK’s leading dementia research charity. Their work is dedicated to furthering our understanding of the causes, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and cure of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Characterised by declines in memory and other cognitive functions such as thinking and reasoning, these progressively worsening neurodegenerative and ultimately fatal diseases sadly remain without a cure. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Ian Wilson, Deputy Chief Executive, to hear about the vital work conducted by Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Bacteria are found everywhere – in humans, animals and the environment – and are best known for being able to cause painful and even fatal infections. It may come as surprise, therefore, to learn that bacteria can also have useful applications. The lifetime work of Dr Bert Lampson at East Tennessee State University in the USA has focussed on the dangers and applications of bacteria. Over his career, Dr Lampson has discovered new mechanisms of antibiotic resistance, novel antibiotics, and bacterial proteins, with important applications for science and healthcare.