The first 1000 days of life, usually considered to be from conception to the age of two years, represent a critical stage in development, and the foundations of our health in adulthood are laid at this time. Thus, understanding pregnancy and early infancy and how they can be affected by multiple factors, including genetics, infections, nutrition and the microbiome, is an essential part of understanding human health more broadly. Our research is particularly interested in the role of the microbiome and iron nutrition in early life.
A major consequence of the Western lifestyle is intestinal dysbiosis: a disturbance in the microbial communities in the gut. Dysbiosis can have many adverse health consequences, including increasing the risk of allergic and autoimmune diseases, depression and anxiety. Pathologic alterations in the gut microbial composition are an important trigger of inflammation, the major consequence of which is a break in immune tolerance and mucosal barrier function. Interestingly, the loss of some ‘traditional’ human pathogens such as hookworms, is believed to be a significant contributor of microbiome dysbiosis and the ineffective development of immune tolerance. Starting life with a well-balanced intestinal flora is important for good health, and many environmental factors, such as mode of delivery, maternal nutrition, breastfeeding and use of antibiotics can significantly alter the microbiome composition of infants.
Nutrition is equally important for the developing human, whether in utero or in early postnatal life, and one of the most significant of these nutrients is iron. Both the mother and infant have evolved highly efficient mechanisms for acquiring the iron they need at this critical time, but our understanding of these mechanisms, and indeed of maternal and infant iron requirements, is surprisingly poorly understood.
Our scientists, clinicians and nutritionists work in close collaboration to understand these important early life factors and develop innovative and sustainable strategies to ensure a healthy start to life.