Out of the guts of babes

Postdoctoral fellow awarded Banting Fellowship for research into link between children's gut bacteria and allergies

Amy Hewko - 22 October 2013

Meghan Azad was recently announced as a recipient of the 2013 CIHR Banting Fellowship, a prestigious funding opportunity worth $140,000 over a two-year period. Azad, a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's Department of Pediatrics, was one of 23 applicants from across Canada approved for funding. More than 160 applicants were nominated by their respective universities, following rigorous internal application procedures.

The funding will allow her to continue her research into the impact of children's environments on the bacteria living in their digestive tracts (gut microbiota) and the allergies that may develop later in life. Azad works with a multidisciplinary team of roughly a dozen members led by Anita Kozyrskyj, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the U of A Department of Pediatrics, and James Scott, an associate professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. The first paper related to this research was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in February of this year.

Azad received her PhD from the University of Manitoba in the Department of Biochemistry and Medical Genetics in 2010. Her PhD thesis centred around the behaviour of cancer cells, a far cry from microbiota, allergies and pediatric health.

"I realized I needed a change. I still really wanted to conduct health research, but I didn't want to be doing lab experiments anymore. I took a couple of courses in epidemiology, the study of population health, and I really enjoyed it," she said of her transition from cancer to pediatric research. "I was speaking with people in Manitoba who did epidemiology research and one of them connected me with Anita Kozyrskyj."

The bacteria found in an infant's gut can reveal a lot about allergies that child may develop later in life, according to Azad's research. The research team is working with the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study, which recruited 3,500 families in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Vancouver. The multi-year project follows the children from before birth until at least the age of five. The recruitment phase is already complete; this year, the youngest children will turn one and the oldest will turn four.

"During early life, gut bacteria play an important role in training the immune system to understand which bacteria are normal and friendly and which could make you sick," Azad noted. "When the immune system doesn't develop properly, it can result in allergic disease."

The first stage of the research is to establish how environmental factors affect the microbiota. These factors include anything from breastfeeding versus formula feeding to the presence of pets or siblings in a child's home. Parents complete questionnaires identifying lifestyle changes, allergy symptoms such as wheezing, and new health developments such as infections requiring antibiotic treatment. Researchers also visit the children at home to directly assess the environment.

This phase of the study includes characterizing the gut microbiota through analysis of stool samples collected from each child at three months and one year of age. The children will also have clinical visits at one, three and five years of age to establish health outcomes, including asthma and allergies.

The second stage will consider how the variations in the microbiota affect the development of allergic disease. According to Azad, trends may already be emerging though further analysis is required to confirm the information.

Azad acknowledged the fabulous support she has received from the FoMD, the Department of Pediatrics, and especially from Kozyrskyj. She pointed out that, unlike most fellowships, the Banting goes beyond evaluating individual merit to also recognize the synergy of each candidate with their institution and research environment, a true testament to the strength of research and mentorship at the Faculty. "I'm thrilled to be a Banting Fellowship recipient, particularly given the recent cutbacks to research funding. It's wonderful to be rewarded for my research so far, and to be able to continue this exciting project," Azad said. "I expect we're going to make a lot of interesting and meaningful discoveries with this research."

Azad will receive funding from the Banting Fellowship from 2013 to 2015.