Nutrition Research Institute receives grant for global health research

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Steven H. Zeisel, institute director and Kenan Distinguished University Professor in nutrition and pediatrics in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the School of Medicine, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project titled “Choline and Optimal Development.”

The proposed research on choline and brain development is a collaboration among Zeisel, Carol Cheatham, assistant professor of psychology in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Andrew Prentice, scientific director of the Medical Research Council’s Keneba field station in Gambia, Africa.

Grand Challenges Explorations funds individuals worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in solving persistent global health and development challenges. Zeisel’s project is one of more than 100 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 8 grants announced May 9 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Zeisel is credited with the discovery of choline’s role as an essential nutrient, particularly for fetal and infant development.  His research indicates that women need to eat diets adequate in choline, which is found in foods such as eggs, to assure optimal brain development in their infants.  In addition, several common genetic misspellings, called SNPs, make some women require especially high amounts of choline in their diets. Dietary choline intake in young women is low in low- and middle-income countries and perhaps increasing maternal intake of choline will enhance brain development, as measured by memory function tests, in children.

The Grand Challenges Explorations grant will enable Zeisel and colleagues to design a diet intervention that can be implemented in Gambia, where diet intake of choline is less than half the recommended Adequate Intake. First, investigators at the UNC institute will develop methods for testing infant memory that will work when used in the field in Africa. Also, researchers will test solar-powered instruments for studying brainwaves in infants. These methods will be tested in a study of pregnant women and their babies in Kannapolis. At the same time, the team will conduct studies to determine which of the SNPs in genes of choline metabolism are common in Gambia. The data generated from these studies will enable Zeisel and colleagues to design and implement an intervention that assures adequate intake of choline in a population in Gambia and assess whether this enhances brain development.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The UNC Nutrition Research Institute, located o the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, is dedicated to developing the field of individualized nutrition — understanding why people have different metabolism and nutrient requirements.