Manitoba

U of Manitoba breast milk researcher wins $6.5M grant to 'take a deep view of milk'

A University of Manitoba researcher has landed a $6.5 million grant to advance her studies on the benefits of breast milk.

Research will examine components of milk in women around world to help find ways for babies to thrive

Breast milk is fundamentally important to infant health but surprisingly little is known about its composition and its variation around the world, says University of Manitoba researcher Meghan Azad. (Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

A University of Manitoba researcher has landed a $6.5 million grant to advance her studies on the benefits of breast milk.

Meghan Azad said the money, which comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is like winning the lottery.

"It's a lot of money. It will allow us to do some really intensive research," said Azad, an assistant professor at the university and a research scientist at the Children's Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba.

"I mean over the last five years I've been fortunate to get funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Research Manitoba and a few other sources and am super grateful for that. To be honest I wouldn't be here without it. It's that research that got me noticed by the Gates Foundation."

Watch Meghan Azad explain how breast milk research will help babies grow:

A University of Manitoba researcher has landed a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation worth $6.5 million for her studies on the benefits of breast milk. 3:15

The Gates grant will help establish a new global health initiative dedicated to breast milk — the International Milk Composition Consortium — for which Azad will serve as director.

The consortium will bring together five research groups studying maternal nutrition and infant growth in five countries around the world, including Tanzania, Pakistan, Nepal, Burkina Faso and Canada.

It will also include human milk scientists and data scientists who will analyze breast milk for its nutritional and non-nutritional components, including carbs, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, prebiotic sugars, hormones, antibodies and growth factors.

Meghan Azad will serve as director of a newly-established International Milk Composition Consortium. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"This is going to allow us to really take a deep view of milk," Azad said.

"My prior studies and most other prior studies in breast milk really focus on an individual component, one at a time, but I think what is always missing is the fact that all these components are present in breast milk at the same time.

"So it would really be best to study them all together."

Breast milk is fundamentally important to infant health but surprisingly little is known about its composition and its variation around the world, she noted.

"This is a food that's evolved for millions of years, specifically to feed human babies and sustain their lives and yet we know remarkably little about it," Azad said.

"This project will help us learn about how human milk helps human babies develop and grow up healthy."

The research will examine components linked to infant growth and resilience and be critical to understanding why some breastfed infants can still develop infections or struggle to achieve optimal growth, the U of M release states.

That information will help develop maternal and infant nutrition recommendations. It will also be used to design ways to optimize nutrition for infants who cannot be breastfed.

"If we identify a component, or more likely a combination of components, that are really optimal for babies to support growth, then it's possible those might be able to be isolated from milk or even synthesized and provided as supplements to babies if their moms are lacking those components," Azad said.

The research will involve 1,200 mothers and their infants and take place over the next three years.

Information will also be collected about the moms "so we might also find that particular important components [of the milk] can increased by eating a certain diet or changing your lifestyle in a certain way," Azad said.

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