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Gates Foundation grant aids pediatric nutrition research

Jan. 24, 2013, 9:48 AM

Using a SmartPhone platform and a $100,000 grant from Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Vanderbilt Pediatric Surgeon John Pietsch, M.D., and fourth-year medical student Katherine Allen may revolutionize the way infants and children all over the world are assessed and treated for proper nutrition.

The Grand Challenges Explorations grants are awarded worldwide to those taking innovative approaches to some of the toughest and most persistent global health and development challenges.

John Pietsch, M.D.

The often irreversible physical and cognitive damage caused by malnutrition in infants and children is a plight all too common in developing countries and the cause of one-third of all deaths in children under the age of 5.

“Proper nutrition during pregnancy and in early childhood dramatically improves children’s health and quality of life for years to come,” said Pietsch, associate professor of Surgery and Pediatrics.

“By detecting malnutrition in infants and children before it is obvious gives us a head start to reverse these negative effects well into adulthood and even across generations.”

So, Pietsch, Allen and Eric-Jan Manders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teamed with the department of Biomedical Engineering and the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health to begin work on a handheld instrument that can provide early detection of malnutrition, as well as analyze follow-up treatment efficacy.

The Biomedical Engineering team, consisting of Franz Baudenbacher, Ph.D., Andre Diedrich, Ph.D., Rene Harder, M.Eng., and Jonathan Whitfield, M.Eng., are beginning work on a low-cost, rugged and check-card sized mobile device that measures bioelectrical impedance.

Using Vanderbilt’s existing Smart Health Care Technology Platform, this device might one day be used to determine body water and overall body composition, as well as to plot and analyze changes in nutrition following nutritional support.

Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) is a technique developed in the 1980s to determine body composition by measuring the flow of an electric current through body tissues.

Pietsch and colleagues hope to improve upon this technique, enabling health care providers to interpret and adapt treatment at the point of care, even in rural or remote areas.

“Smart and mobile technologies are currently underutilized and provide a cost-effective opportunity to access and improve health care, as well as enable more independent living,” said Baudenbacher, associate professor of Biomedical Engineering and Physics.

“It is a tremendous accomplishment to receive funding from the Gates Foundation, and we are excited about the potential to positively impact global health,” said Dai Chung, M.D., professor and chair of Pediatric Surgery.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, more than 700 people in 45 countries have received the grants.
Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.

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