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January 14, 2010

Gates Foundation funds technology to measure micronutrients in malnourished populations

Malnutrition stunts growth, impairs mental function and reproduction, and diminishes a person’s productivity and work capacity.

In fact, organizations concerned with improving health among the world’s poor rank improved nutrition as one of the essential steps toward progress. Good nutrition prevents disease and thus lowers healthcare costs, but more importantly, it improves a person’s ability to overcome poverty.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last fall awarded Buddy Ratner and David Castner, both UW professors of bioengineering and chemical engineering, $640,000 to develop a an inexpensive micronutrient rapid measuring device that could be used to detect deficiencies in settings with scarce resources. Pinpointing micronutrient deficiencies in malnourished populations would allow targeted supplements to improve people’s health and lives.

Testing for micronutrients currently is a multistep lab procedure that cannot be done in the field. The two co-investigators intend to demonstrate a simple, practical test for measuring iron, iodine, folic acid, vitamin A and zinc — micronutrients associated with good health.

“The goal is to be able to test for all of these at once using a low-cost method,” Ratner says.

The new technique will use recent developments in mass spectrometry coupled with technologies Ratner has developed in his lab over the last 30 years.

Three new lab positions will be created to staff the one-year, proof-of-concept project.

The technology Ratner and Castner are testing could have broader applications — disease diagnosis, airport security, and even wine tasting.

But the first and main goal is to develop a low cost, easy test to identify missing micronutrients among the poor. Once a person’s specific micronutrient deficiencies are identified, food fortification can be tailored to meet those needs.

A Gates Foundation report credits more attention to micronutrients as a major reason why since 1990 there has been a drop in underweight children under age five. But in some countries, particularly in Africa, HIV infection and under-nutrition reinforce each other to increase the number of underweight children under five.

“Continuing to implement and increase proven approaches to reducing malnutrition will be essential in reversing this trend,” the Gates Foundation report noted.