Scottish and Zambian researchers tackle environmental enteropathy

Kanekwa Zyambo and Dr Morrison

Scottish scientists are teaming up with researchers from Zambia to find new ways to diagnose and treat a condition which affects millions in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

Ms Kanekwa Zyambo, from the University of Zambia, is spending two weeks at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride to master new technology to help understand environmental enteropathy (EE).

EE is a disorder of the gut which scientists think plays an important role in malnutrition and stunted growth in children. It also reduces the effectiveness of oral vaccines. 

EE is common in tropical low- and middle-income countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. It contributes to around 150 million cases of childhood stunting around the world, a condition which is associated with impaired cognitive ability and reduced school and work performance.

Breath test key to diagnosis

The visit is part of an ongoing £2.9m UKRI Medical Research Council-funded collaboration between researchers at the University of Glasgow, the University of Zambia, Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London.

The researchers are working to optimise a prototype breath test built around a process known as isotope ratio infrared spectrometry. The test will show how much gut damage there is, and could help doctors deliver treatment to prevent the advance of the condition.

Dr Morrison, of SUERC and the University of Glasgow, said: “Breath tests have significant potential to provide rapid diagnosis of gut related disease avoiding the need for invasive biopsy – a major advantage in a disorder like EE, where clinicians mostly look to treat children. 

“I’m pleased that we will expand the scope of future studies in Zambia thanks to Ms Zyambo’s visit, and I’m hopeful that together we’ll be able to gain greater insight into EE and its role in stunting in the places where stunting prevalence is high.”

During the visit, Dr Morrison is helping Zyambo optimise the Thermofisher Delta Ray infrared spectrometer to deliver breath tests. She will take the spectrometer back to Zambia with her to continue the research.

Analysis of gut bacteria

Zyambo also visited Professor Christine Edwards at the University of Glasgow’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing to learn about a new way to assess the function of gut bacteria. 

Scientists have shown that gut bacteria are different in children with EE-like gut abnormalities. This MRC project will assist transfer of this methodology from Glasgow to Zambia to enable deeper insight into the function of the microbiota of Zambian children. 

Zyambo, of the University of Zambia’s Tropical Gastroenterology and Nutrition Group (TROPGAN), added: “I’m looking forward to returning to Zambia to continue this important work with my colleagues in the next stage of research, and advancing this collaboration between researchers in Africa and the UK.”

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