Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
CAS Connect January 2014

Saving babies’ lives worldwide

Despite six years of working on the same campus and their common research interest in infant health and breastfeeding, Michelle McGuire and Courtney Meehanonly learned about each other’s work when a colleague suggested they have lunch together.

Michelle McGuire, left, and Courtney Meehan lead an international study to help babies thrive.
Michelle McGuire, left, and Courtney Meehan lead an international study to help babies thrive.

At the time, McGuire, an associate professor in biology, was studying the composition and microbiome of human breast milk and analyzing samples from women living in the Palouse. Halfway around the world, Meehan, an assistant professor in anthropology, was working with women raising children in a forest forager society in the Central African Republic.

“Even though Pullman is a small community, it can seem large at times and it’s hard to keep up with all of the exciting research going on around campus,” said Brian Kemp, an associate professor with a dual appointment in anthropology and biology and the colleague who suggested they get together. “I thought, ‘What if Courtney could transport milk back from the field?’ If you could compare the microbe composition of milk from a woman living halfway around the world in vastly different conditions than here on the Palouse, then you have something. If the samples are different, that is interesting. If they are the same, that is interesting, too. It’s a win-win situation. Obviously the funders must have agreed.”

Today, McGuire and Meehan are co-principal investigators on a $950,000 National Science Foundation INSPIRE grant that will bring together 17 world-class researchers from around the globe for the first-ever comprehensive study of human lactation and milk composition across international populations. Biological and anthropological data will be collected at 11 sites in eight countries across Europe, Africa, and North and South America in a multifaceted effort to better understand how diet, hygiene, and cultural practices relate to infant and maternal health.

Finding inspiration

McGuire is what she calls an “accidental lactation biologist.” With her acceptance to medical school in hand, she was looking forward to her final undergraduate semester and fulfilling a number of elective credits. “I took an introductory nutrition class and absolutely fell in love,” she said. “It was basic science but also applied science, with an impact on human health and well-being. It wasn’t what I was planning on doing, but how can you not be interested in infant health?”

Meehan, on the other hand, discovered her passion for anthropology much earlier in her college career. “Introduction to Anthropology was one of the first classes I took as an undergraduate and I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” she said.

Her research focuses on the evolution of human childhood and child development. “I’m interested in who cares for children and how they care for children and the role of caregivers on children’s physical and social-emotional development. I also investigate external influences on maternal reproduction and caregiving styles,” she said.

McGuire, center, visits with research  volunteers in Pullman.
McGuire, center, visits with research volunteers in Pullman.

Meehan and McGuire’s INSPIRE grant project will be the first international study to statistically analyze anthropological and environmental data alongside genomics data of the microbial communities of human breast milk and the corresponding gastrointestinal microbiome of the infants.

“Around the world, and especially in developing countries, breastfeeding is one of the most important things that women can do to decrease morbidity and mortality in their infants,” said McGuire. “We know that, but we don’t know everything about why that is. Our goal is to understand what is normal for a given region and how the biological composition of the milk, the local cultural practices, and even genetics relate to the health of the infant.”

The ‘dream team’

The research team is an international, interdisciplinary collaboration of physiologists, nutritional scientists, biological and cultural anthropologists, microbiologists and a mathematician, each one contributing valuable expertise toward the quest of understanding how infant nutrition and overall health can be improved worldwide.

“I call it the dream team of international lactation and breastfeeding research,” said McGuire. “They are all very experienced researchers who already have completed successful long-term studies at the field sites so we should be able to accomplish a great deal in a relatively short period.”

Beginning this summer, samples and anthropological data will be collected at sites in Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Peru, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. The diverse locations and various subject criteria will provide researchers with several ethnically, geographically, and potentially genetically matched data sets to analyze.

 Meehan, center, visits with a family in the Central African Republic.

Meehan, center, visits with a family in the Central African Republic.

“This is transformational research,” said Meehan. “Lactation isn’t just a physiological event. It is also influenced by the temperament of the infant and the mother and certainly by cultural practice. If we are to understand what is normal for human milk, we need to be able to understand it from a multifaceted perspective.”

If researchers can determine what supports optimal infant health, either globally or in a particular location, interventions might be developed to improve infant health and reduce mortality.

Pushing the envelope

In addition to collecting an enormous amount of data, the team will be developing new methods to incorporate the diverse information. “It’s tricky to take anthropological, genomic, microbiological and biochemical data and analyze them together. As far as we’re aware, it’s not been done before,” said McGuire.

The study will also be the first large-scale application of new molecular and bioinformatics techniques. James Foster, professor of computational biology at the University of Idaho, will be leading the team’s advanced methodology efforts to develop meta-amplicon techniques that can quickly and accurately identify bacteria via their DNA and specific gene variations.

To be considered for an INSPIRE grant, proposals must be “bold interdisciplinary” projects which address some of the world’s most complicated and pressing scientific problems. McGuire and her team are looking forward to pushing the envelope of science and the opportunity to contribute to “saving babies around the world.”

World map

McGuire and Meehan’s collaborators hail from WSU and 11 other institutions:

  • Egerton University (Kenya)
  • Instituto de Investigacion Nutricional (Peru)
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health
  • Lund University (Sweden)
  • McGill University (Canada)
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Universidad Complutense de Madrid
  • University of Idaho
  • University of Ghana
  • University of Toronto