Researchers at Aga Khan University are harnessing the power of stem cells to generate new insight into how malnutrition occurs. The 2018 National Nutrition Survey says malnutrition is a major public health problem in the developing world, with four out of ten children under the age of five in Pakistan suffering from stunting while one in three children is underweight.
An AKU statement pertaining to the research says an unhygienic environment, contaminated water, inadequate diet and poor maternal health during pregnancy are some of the major factors leading to environmental enteropathy or EE. This is a poorly understood, intermediary condition, characterised by inflammation of the gut that leads to chronic malnutrition.
Existing research has extensively documented its causes and shed light on the structural and genetic differences between a healthy and a malnourished intestine. However, until now researchers were unable to explore how EE originates at the cell level, especially in young children.
Aga Khan University's Juma research laboratory has succeeded in growing enteroids or mini-intestines from gut biopsy tissue.
"Stem cell technology has enabled us to successfully grow intestinal organoids, or mini-intestines, from the tissue of malnourished children," said AKU's Dr Junaid Iqbal. "This provides us with an excellent model to safely conduct experiments to explore disease processes, study gut infections and vaccine failure in malnourished children, and identify different therapeutic strategies to reverse the effects of environmental enteropathy."
In an extension of their work, the AKU faculty in collaboration with researchers at the University of Virginia will study the effects of Covid-19 infection on a malnourished gut, one of the first such studies in the world.
Recent studies into the coronavirus have noted that the ACE-2 receptor, a protein that provides a pathway for the virus into the body's cells, is present in both the respiratory system as well as the gut. This means that the coronavirus also infects and grows inside our gut, which could explain Covid-19 symptoms such as an upset stomach and fatigue.
The study will see researchers expose a range of gut enteroids to the virus to explore how Covid-19 multiplies in the intestine. They will also conduct studies to understand infection dynamics in young versus old people, and to judge how well malnourished guts can defend against the virus.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2021.