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Mayo Clinic, Others Land Gates Grants for Gut Disease Biomarker Studies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded seven grants to researchers to fund fund projects that identify and validate promising biomarkers for assessing gut function, health, and disease.

The grants totaling $9 million were awarded under the Gates Foundation's Biomarkers of Gut Function and Health program. Operating under the foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health program, the grants fund research with a particular focus on the structural or functional integrity of the small bowel.

The grants are being awarded to address Grand Challenge No. 15 called Discover Biomarkers of Health and Disease. The challenge uses high-throughput approaches in genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics to identify and validate biomarkers for use in low-cost tests "for achieving definitive point-of-care assessment of health and disease states in individuals in developing world settngs," the foundation said on its website.

Among the recipients of the new funding is the Mayo Clinic, which will seek to develop a non-invasive, biomarker-based test that uses mass spectrometry to identify environmental enteropathy, an intestinal disease that affects 146 million infants in the developing world.

The condition disrupts digestion and absorption of nutrients in infants, leading to malnourishment that inhibits growth and development.

"These kids never reach their full potential," Mayo Clinic investigator William Faubion said in a statement. "The trouble for physicians is how to identify the infants with enteropathy."

The test that Faubion seeks to develop will quantify sugar absorption in urine using mass spectrometry, with the goal of providing a simple and inexpensive method for identifying environmental enteropathy that will be validated in at-risk infants in the developing world.

"We hope the suite of grants announced today will give us a deeper understanding of the reasons underlying stunted growth in children in the developing world and how this can be predicted to guide new approaches to improve the health and development of these children," added Chris Wilson, director of discovery and translational sciences at the Gates Foundation.

Most of this grants awarded in this round of funding will support projects focused on this disease.

Other grant recipients include Washington University School of Medicine researchers who will lead a team to develop a strategy to isolate human RNA from the small bowel using stool samples and develop a panel of biomarker candidates that can identify environmental enteropathy.

Also, a team at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, will seek to identify and evaluate environmental enteropathy biomarkers from samples using serum and gut secretions, and scientists at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, will use mRNA sequencing to test a group of candidate biomarkers to identify and monitor environmental enteropathy.

Johns Hopkins University scientists and their partners will generate a new biomarker panel to assess disease activity in environmental enteropathy, and will analyze markers related to immune system activation and growth factors in Peruvian children, while University of Virginia researchers will develop and validate metabolic biomarkers of gut health to identify children who are at risk of environmental enteropathy and developmental impairment.

Children's Hospital Boston investigators also will use an award to test whether known biomarkers of gut function can accurately predict impaired neurodevelopment and stunted growth in children, and these markers will be validated in a well-characterized group of children in Tanzania.

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