Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has been honored with the Steven C. Beering Award for his seminal contributions to establishing the field of human microbiome research. His research has revealed a vital relationship between the tens of trillions of microbes that live in the human gut and a person’s health status.
Members of Gordon’s lab have focused on addressing the global health challenges of obesity and childhood malnutrition by developing a new understanding of the interactions between dietary ingredients and gut microbes. They also are developing new approaches to promote the healthy assembly of the gut microbial community during the first several years of life, when building such communities appears to be essential to good health.
Gordon, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, received the award Sept. 20, from the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Established in 1983, the Beering Award is given annually to an individual whose research contributions have led to outstanding advances in the biomedical sciences. The award is named for Steven C. Beering, MD, who served as dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine and later led Purdue University for 17 years as its president. Six past Beering awardees later received Nobel Prizes.
“It is a great honor to receive this award, which recognizes the work of an inspiring group of talented PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and staff who have worked in the lab over the years, and the many wonderful collaborators who we have been fortunate enough to interact with during this period,” Gordon said.
After initially identifying key links between the makeup of the gut microbiome, obesity and obesity-associated metabolic abnormalities more than a decade ago, Gordon’s work has expanded to include childhood malnutrition.
Malnutrition is the leading cause of death worldwide in children under age 5. Among malnourished children who survive, more than 25 percent suffer from stunted growth. Chronic malnutrition also results in impaired cognitive abilities and disruption of normal immune functions. Current therapies do not overcome these abnormalities, which persist beyond childhood. In addition, prolonged malnutrition during pregnancy and early childhood has been associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease later in life. This dual burden of malnutrition and obesity represents a major health challenge in low- and middle-income countries.
Studying the developing gut microbial communities (microbiota) of healthy babies born in several low-income countries, Gordon and his students identified a normal program of gut microbiota development that is shared by unrelated individuals within and across these populations. This developmental program is largely completed by the time children are 3 years old.
Their studies have revealed that gut microbiota development is disrupted in children with malnutrition, leaving them with gut communities that are immature. This microbiota immaturity is not repaired by current food-based therapies for malnutrition.
Gordon and his students have transplanted microbial communities from healthy and malnourished infants and children into mice raised in sterile conditions and fed diets similar to those consumed by these infants and children. Their results have shown that immature microbiota transmit impaired lean body mass gain, skeletal growth abnormalities and metabolic impairments to recipient mice — features similar to those observed in malnourished children. These preclinical studies provide key evidence supporting the concept that normal gut microbial community development is intimately linked to healthy growth, and that it likely has very long-term beneficial effects beyond childhood.
With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gordon’s group is developing new types of therapeutic foods designed to repair the microbiota immaturity associated with childhood malnutrition. The effectiveness of these microbiota-directed foods soon will be tested in children living in Bangladesh who remain stunted and underweight after current standard therapy.
Gordon believes that increasing knowledge of the relationship between diet, gut microbiota and healthy growth will impact agriculture, methods for food production and nutritional recommendations for children. For example, this knowledge could help in making decisions about which cultivars of current or future staples to incorporate into foods. It also means identifying technologies needed to produce foods that support efficient microbial processing of their ingredients into products that sustain healthy growth. It could result in a more specific set of recommendations about what types of foods should be administered to children as they wean from breast milk or formula and in what sequence.
With these thoughts in mind, Gordon is working with an interdisciplinary group composed of faculty from the Institute of Public Health, and the Schools of Medicine, Law and Business at Washington University, and colleagues from Bangladesh, to articulate and proactively address some of the many societal and regulatory implications of this area of work.
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