Richard Guerrant and William Petri

The statistics are staggering. Nearly a third of all children in developing countries suffer from malnutrition. Worldwide, poor nutrition is linked to more than half of all child deaths.

Now a global effort—the largest ever—is under way to combat this health crisis, led by researchers in the UVA School of Medicine. A $30 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will fund a five-year study to investigate how malnutrition and intestinal infections lead to serious lifelong physical and cognitive problems.

“Malnutrition is a devastating condition which can ravage the human body,” says Richard Guerrant (Med ’68), director of UVA’s Center for Global Health and the study’s head researcher. “While it can be harmful to adults, children who are malnourished face a lifetime of challenges, as they do not reach their full physical and mental potential.”

Scientists don’t fully understand the causes of malnutrition or the complex relationship between malnutrition and intestinal infection. It’s not simply a matter of access to food; many children who have enough to eat are malnourished. A focal point of the project—the study of genetic differences in the populations involved—will shed light on what factors account for susceptibility to infectious organisms and malnutrition.

“The ability of a person’s gut to absorb nutrients is influenced by a complex interaction among a person’s genetic makeup, the natural microbes in a person’s gut and their resistance to infections,” says William Petri Jr. (Grad ’80, Med ’88), chief of UVA’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health. With a separate $6.8 million grant from the Gates Foundation, he will chair the Malnutrition Biomarkers Discovery section of the study. “This grant will allow us to explore this interaction on all levels.”