£1.9 million for global health research study

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UCLan led trial to tackle zinc and iron deficiency receives additional financial support

A University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) research project to tackle zinc and iron deficiency has been awarded an additional £1.9 million grant.

The study, which is the first large-scale investigation into the potential of biofortified wheat to reduce zinc and iron deficiencies among adolescent girls and children in Pakistan, has received the grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The two-year funding will enable lead academic Nicola Lowe, Professor of Nutritional Sciences at UCLan, and her team to build on the research they have already undertaken during the past two years.

She said: “Zinc and iron deficiencies are huge global public health problems. In Pakistan, more than 40% of women are zinc deficient compared with less than 15% in Europe and North America and over 20% have iron deficiency anaemia. These micronutrient deficiencies have negative consequences for maternal and child health, and it is imperative that sustainable and cost-effective solutions are found.”

This is an exciting opportunity for us to generate high quality evidence to inform policy makers in Pakistan to make better and timely decision to tackle zinc and iron deficiencies.

Biofortification is a process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through conventional plant breeding techniques and addition of nutrient-rich fertilisers. HarvestPlus has developed varieties of wheat with significantly greater zinc and iron concentrations, compared to standard varieties which have been release in South Asia.

Professor Lowe said: “Wheat is the staple crop in Pakistan and most families consume chapatis, made from wheat flour, with every meal. This demonstrates how much of a need there is to be able to produce wheat which is boosted with zinc and iron. The £1.9 million funding will allow us to scale up the research programme to investigate the effect of increasing the intake of these nutrients on the health of young people.”

During the first six months of the trial, 500 adolescent girls, aged 10 to 16, and 500 children, aged 1 to 5, living in a low-resource community in North West Pakistan will consume their usual locally purchased flour. For the following six months, they will consume either biofortified flour or standard flour, both of which will be grown locally, and a range of biochemical measures will be taken to assess the impact of consuming biofortified flour on zinc and iron status and general health.

In addition to the consumption of biofortified wheat, the research will also focus on understanding wheat growing conditions in Pakistan and supporting farmers to improve the yield and grain quality of biofortified wheat.

The UCLan team is working with academics and medical professionals from the University of Nottingham, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Kings College London, Pakistan’s Khyber Medical University, British Geological Survey and the Abaseen Foundation.

Martin Broadley, Professor of Plant Nutrition at the University of Nottingham, has been heavily involved in the joint research project. He said: “The prevalence of zinc and iron deficiencies, in Pakistan and elsewhere, is shocking. Biofortified wheat, which has more zinc and iron in its grain, is a promising way to help address these deficiencies, however, producing the best quality wheat also requires good soil management. We’re looking forward to continued collaborations with Nicola and colleagues in both Pakistan and the UK and to help understand more about how the agriculture sector can support healthier food systems.”

Dr Jaffar Khan, from the Khyber Medical University, added: “This is an exciting opportunity for us to generate high quality evidence to inform policy makers in Pakistan to make better and timely decision to tackle zinc and iron deficiencies. In addition, this project will also help understand the sociocultural aspects related to this new wheat flour at farmer, businessman, and consumer levels. Being the only public sector Medical University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this project is a unique opportunity for capacity building of its staff, students, and laboratories in collaboration with the UK universities and its researchers.”

Previously the project has received £300,000 from the BBSRC through the UKRI GCRF programme.

Rachel Atkinson | 11 April 2019