A team of international scientists will be setting up a genetics center in India to study how the diverse populations of the country synthesize fats which are critical for the development of brain and the eyes and may help to tackle malnutrition.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researchers Floyd H. "Ski" Chilton, Ph.D., and Avinash K. "Avi" Shetty, M.D., are studying genetic differences in populations related to how they convert certain dietary fats known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
"Given that one third of all severely malnourished children are in India, it is vital to understand the distribution of gene variants that impact long-chain PUFA synthesis in this country. We're particularly interested in PUFAs because they are so critical for brain and immune development early in life," Chilton said.
With new grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, they will take their research to the coastal city of Mangalore in the state of Karnataka in Southern India to study its diverse populations and their genetic capacity to make PUFAs that are critical for brain, eye and immune system development.
The collaboration brings together Wake Forest Baptist, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the NITTE University/K.S. Hegde Medical Academy/AB Shetty Memorial Institute of Dental Sciences in Mangalore.
Chilton, a professor of physiology and pharmacology and director of the Center for Botanical Lipids and Inflammatory Disease Prevention at Wake Forest Baptist, and Shetty, a professor of pediatrics, have a long collaborative history with Rasika S. Mathias, ScD., and Kathleen Barnes, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins.
Chilton said he envisions a day when malnutrition could be optimally addressed by knowing how different populations utilize dietary components such as PUFAs.
"It may be that one malnourished population requires one set of nutrients and another a different set of nutrients," he said.
Long-chain PUFAs such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), are vital for brain and eye development. Specifically, normal visual and cognitive development is dependent on an adequate supply of DHA and AA in synapses and photoreceptors.
Additionally, said Chilton, a lack of LCPUFAs or an imbalance between omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids has been associated with a number of behavioural abnormalities, as well as neurological and psychiatric disorders in both children and adults, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders, as well as unipolar and bipolar disorders.
This new effort is being supported with a two-year, 200,000-dollar grant from The John E. Fogarty International Center for Advanced Study in the Health Sciences, part of The National Institutes of Health.
The long-term objective, said Mathias, is to create the technical and intellectual infrastructure to carry out a larger project to analyze DNA and circulating fatty acids in major population centers in India.
"This is the first step to help us create a fertile, local academic environment and a proven infrastructure needed to better understand how diverse Indian populations synthesize fats that are critical for brain and eye development," Chilton said.
"Our ultimate hope and dream is to one day create therapeutic foods based on genetic backgrounds of different populations to treat malnutrition," he added.