Milken Institute School of Public Health Receives Grant to Combat Maternal Malnutrition

WASHINGTON, DC (Sept. 3, 2020) – Researchers at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) have received a $1.8 million grant to improve maternal and newborn health by addressing malnutrition in pregnancy.

Poor nutrition during pregnancy has been linked to adverse birth outcomes, including preterm deliveries and health conditions that lead to higher rates of fetal, newborn and infant mortality. Many of these births occur in low- and middle-income countries where pregnant women are deficient in micronutrients that can aide healthy pregnancies and optimal birth outcomes.

The 2-year project, supported by the grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will advance scientists’ understanding of micronutrient metabolism in pregnancy and contribute data toward optimizing the nutrient levels that women should receive while pregnant.

“Maternal malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies, is a major public health problem that has received little attention despite its importance for a healthy pregnancy and baby,” said Emily R. Smith, ScD, MPH, an assistant professor of global health at Milken Institute SPH and the principal investigator on the project. “Our study aims to fill research gaps using modern methods that connect molecular nutrition and population health to ensure pregnant women receive adequate nutrition.”   

Smith’s previous research found that women in low- and middle-income countries who took daily multivitamin supplements during their pregnancies had better birth outcomes. However, a recent study from Nepal showed that many of the women taking daily prenatal vitamins still had micronutrient deficiencies. Smith says this may have occurred because biomarkers used to understand how vitamins impact health and the current nutrient reference guides are not based on research in pregnant women and may not reflect their unique needs.

Smith and the research team, which includes Milken Institute SPH co-investigators Matthew Barberio, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences, and Gholamali (Ali) Rahnavard, PhD, an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics, will develop and use molecular methods to understand how micronutrients impact pregnancy. Homa Ahmadzia, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is also a collaborator on the project.

The researchers will develop an adaptive trial design, which is usually used to study pharmaceuticals, to study the nutritional needs of pregnant women and discover new biomarkers that can be used in future research on health impact of micronutrients for women and their babies. The researchers will collaborate with scientist partners in Tanzania and India to further develop and test these methods as part of new maternal health clinical trials

The project’s ultimate goal is to generate data that can inform the makeup of new nutritional products, like prenatal vitamins, that lead to better pregnancy outcomes for women and newborns.

“We have an opportunity to optimize the formulation of the nutritional supplements that women receive during pregnancy,” Smith said. “By doing so, we can aid improved health outcomes for women and newborns worldwide.”