Bill and Melinda Gates-funded invention could invisibly solve malnutrition

Tiny technology may be the key to delivering essential nutrients.

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A new invention could help scientists overcome a key stumbling block in the mission to help malnourished communities. It revolves around swallowing down capsules of micronutrients so small they can be hidden within a slice of bread — capsules so microscopic that Bill Gates couldn’t tell the difference between eating a fortified slice, and a regular piece.

Micronutrient deficiency affects almost one-third of the global population, but it’s a “hidden hunger.” That’s because, while a lack of micronutrients can cause malnourished people to suffer from ill effects like cognitive disorders and blindness, they don’t necessarily look starved. Additional nutritional programs are often underfunded — which is why, in part, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken on the challenge. 

While some in the Western world can stop by CVS to pick up vitamins or minerals, getting nutrients in the developing world isn’t that simple. Governments, nonprofits, businesses, and organizations often fortify food, encourage breastfeeding, or offer supplements in places without adequate nutrition. However, transport and storage issues often prevent these strategies from being effective.

Senior author Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped invent this new micronutrient-delivering tech, tells Inverse that what makes micronutrient deficiency such a complex problem is that it can’t be solved by a single technical solution.

malnourishment
A doctor examines a child for signs of malnourishment at a local hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Jaklenec explains that in some geographic areas where malnutrition is more prevalent, food that does contain healthy amounts of micronutrients is often cooked in long-simmering stews. That’s an issue because that process often destroys the nutritional value of the micronutrients.

Meanwhile, improper storage can also degrade micronutrients. Often times, when fortified food and supplements make their way from the lab to the kitchen table, by the time people take a bite the bulk of micronutrients are gone.

To fix these problems, Jaklenec and 30 other scientists worked together to invent a microparticle-based shield that can keep micronutrients protected until they reach the mouths of malnourished people across the globe.

Like a bullet train, the new microparticle platform can preserve the nutritional quality of foods like fortified bread and maize across their journey and help the body absorb the critical nutrients. The tiny tech, described in a study in the journal Science Translational Medicine, could revolutionize the way people treat malnutrition everywhere.

Developing the microparticle shield was a challenging game of trial and error, spurred by the insight, funding, and encouragement of the Gates family and their foundation, Jaklenec explains.

Bill Gates
The Gates Foundation has invested over 775 million dollars in optimizing nutrition around the world. 

“We worked directly with Bill Gates on a lot of these issues,” she says. “It’s just been tremendous — his support, his guidance, and even his critique on how we can do things better.”

The researchers tested about 50 different polymers before settling on one polymer called BMC. Then, they encapsulated 11 micronutrients including iron, iodine, zinc, and B12 inside the BMC microparticle, which is slightly larger than the diameter of a single human hair.

Subsequently, the team fed the micronutrient-filled capsules to rodents and 44 humans. They also tested how well the micronutrients would be absorbed into the human intestine by implanting them into a model designed to mimic the intestinal system. Each trial showed that the BMC capsule shielded the micronutrients from potentially degrading factors like heat, light, moisture, and oxidation.

The study culminated in a high-profile taste test: Bread fortified with BMC capsules was served to Bill Gates in an effort to test whether or not he could tell the difference between regular bread, and their new super bread.

Gates couldn’t tell the difference — which was key. Preserving taste is important, Jaklenec notes. Even if the fortified food is available and nutrient-rich, if people won’t eat it, the problem persists.

“It was great to see him try the bread and highlighted his dedication and involvement in our project,” Jaklenec recalls, “which was very inspiring for me personally and our team.”

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The hope is that people eat fortified bread and can't tell any difference in taste. 

However, actually deploying the capsules poses a serious challenge. Distributing fortified foods or supplements to remote areas requires navigating an intricate logistical web, Jaklenec explains. It’s a technical and delivery issue, and it will require partnering with local governments.

Treating this challenge as a holistic endeavor will make it more likely for the project to succeed. For now, Jaklenec and her team have scaled up the process and are working with industrial partners to produce metric tons of powdered micronutrients. Even though this microparticle technology might not initially be profitable from a cost perspective, she thinks the long-term economic wins could be huge.

“Having two billion people or even ten percent of those people not micronutrient deficient anymore could have other positive impacts, not just on health but on the economy, on education, and other aspects that could indirectly help these large companies as well,” Jaklenec says.

There’s still a long road to hammer out exactly how the microparticle platform could be deployed to meet the need in hard-to-reach places, and future research is needed to refine the process for different geographic locations and their varying nutritional needs. But it could change the lives of billions of people in, importantly, a sustainable way.

Abstract:

Micronutrient deficiencies affect up to 2 billion people and are the leading cause of cognitive and physical disorders in the developing world. Food fortification is effective in treating micronutrient deficiencies; however, its global implementation has been limited by technical challenges in maintaining micronutrient stability during cooking and storage. We hypothesized that polymer-based encapsulation could address this and facilitate micronutrient absorption. We identified poly(butylmethacrylate-co-(2-dimethylaminoethyl)methacrylate-comethylmethacrylate) (1:2:1) (BMC) as a material with proven safety, offering stability in boiling water, rapid dissolution in gastric acid, and the ability to encapsulate distinct micronutrients. We encapsulated 11 micronutrients (iron; iodine; zinc; and vitamins A, B2, niacin, biotin, folic acid, B12, C, and D) and co-encapsulated up to 4 micronutrients. Encapsulation improved micronutrient stability against heat, light, moisture, and oxidation. Rodent studies confirmed rapid micronutrient release in the stomach and intestinal absorption. Bioavailability of iron from microparticles, compared to free iron, was lower in an initial human study. An organotypic human intestinal model revealed that increased iron loading and decreased polymer content would improve absorption. Using process development approaches capable of kilogram-scale synthesis, we increased iron loading more than 30-fold. Scaled batches tested in a follow-up human study exhibited up to 89% relative iron bioavailability compared to free iron. Collectively, these studies describe a broad approach for clinical translation of a heat-stable ingestible micronutrient delivery platform with the potential to improve micronutrient deficiency in the developing world. These approaches could potentially be applied toward clinical translation of other materials, such as natural polymers, for encapsulation and oral delivery of micronutrients.

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