Gates Foundation Grant Supported by Core Researchers at the Foods for Health Institute


Foods for Health Institute researchers are a uniquely collaborative group. Collaborations are based around bringing together teams of researchers with complementary areas of expertise in order to maximize the overall productivity and scientific integrity of each project. The Gates Foundation project is no exception. This multi-university integrative project will improve the health of infants in developing countries by building the scientific knowledge of how intestinal microbiota affect infant health and by developing probiotics uniquely protective against infection of the gastrointestinal system.

Dr. David Mills, as the lead investigator for UC Davis, brings his expertise in the microbiology of a specific group of commensal or protective intestinal bacteria, the Bifidobacteria. Students in the Mills Lab will characterize the Bifidobacteria of healthy breastfed infants and determine which sources of prebiotics, or food for bacteria, are the best for specifically enriching the most protective bacteria and developing novel probiotics. Learn more about the role of the Mills Lab in the Gates Foundation Grant by reading another FFHI article interview with Dr. Mills.

Over the many years of working together, the team at FFHI has found that specific Bifidobacteria from healthy breastfed infants are experts at growing on oligosaccharides, or complex sugars, from human milk. With the expertise of Dr. Carlito Lebrilla, the team is able to analyze these unique sugars using advanced mass spectrometry analytical equipment and methods developed in the Lebrilla Lab. Students in the Lebrilla Lab will use mass spectrometers to analyze the specific oligosaccharide composition of milk samples and infant stool samples to determine how the sugars are being consumed by the intestinal bacteria. This analytical work would not be possible without the expertise of Dr. Bruce German, whose lab specializes in the separation of oligosaccharides and other molecules from milk and other biological samples. 

The team has also found that certain oligosaccharides in cow’s milk are similar to those found in human milk and these can therefore be used to enrich the protective Bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract. However, these special oligosaccharides are found at low concentrations in cow’s milk so it is necessary to isolate them and concentrate them so that they can improve the intestinal health of infants. Assistant Professor Dr. Daniela Barile, brings her expertise in the isolation and concentration of these unique sugars from cow’s milk and certain milk processing streams to the project. Her lab will isolate different fractions using the food-grade facilities at the new August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

Dr. Kay Dewey, who specializes in maternal and infant nutrition and is Director of the Program in International and Community Nutrition at UC Davis, will bring her expertise from her work on the International Lipid-Based Nutrient Supplements (iLiNS) Project. The Gates Foundation grant will have the opportunity to leverage Dr. Dewey’s previous Gates Foundation project and analyze samples from mothers and infants in Malawi. Learn more about Dr. Dewey’s role in the Gates Foundation grant in an accompanying FFHI article, based on an interview with the iLiNS Project Manager, Dr. Mary Arimond.  

In order to compare the samples from mothers and infants in Malawi to those of well-nourished mothers and infants, the project will have access to the FFHI’s own UC Davis Lactation Study, and the clinical expertise of Dr. Jennifer Smilowitz Associate Director of Human Studies Research, who has been running the study in Davis for several years.

Without the supporting roles of the FFHI researchers this complex, inter-disciplinary grant would not be possible. The FFHI provides a space for these scientists to connect with one another, share resources, and craft new ideas and approaches to public health. Research in nutrition and human health has shown that many factors contribute to under-nutrition, malnutrition, and disease. As such, it is vital to bring together researchers with the complimentary knowledge, equipment, and capacity to undertake the massive project of improving the health and development of children throughout the world.