Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, was awarded the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research for his research on the gut microbiota that is helping children suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition recover. Gordon says it’s a sense of purpose that drives him and his research partners to do this lifesaving work. (Video courtesy of Johnson & Johnson)

Childhood malnutrition is a major global health challenge. It affects more than 150 million children under the age of 5 worldwide, with a disproportionate impact in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

Numerous studies have shown that malnutrition is not due to food insecurity alone but instead reflects a combination of factors, including an important role for the gut microbiome, which fails to develop properly during the first two years of life in malnourished children.

Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of the Edison Family Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology at the School of Medicine, has spent the past 30 years studying the human gut microbiome. He is internationally known for his interdisciplinary studies of how the microbes that live in the gut assemble into complex communities following birth and how they function to affect health at various stages of life. His work has focused on two global health challenges —malnutrition in infants and children, and obesity and its associated metabolic abnormalities in adults.

Gordon and his collaborators at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh have shown that children with malnutrition possess gut microbial communities that fail to develop normally, leaving them with communities that appear younger, or less mature, than those of healthy children.

Moreover, current therapeutic foods do not repair this immaturity or correct the long-term effects of malnutrition, including impaired growth, metabolism, immunity, and brain development. These findings have led Gordon’s team to develop new therapeutic foods composed of affordable, culturally acceptable components that advance development of immature gut communities and improve the health status of malnourished children.

The new microbiome-directed food contains a mixture of chickpeas, soy, bananas, and peanuts—ingredients that the group had discovered in earlier preclinical models to repair the gut microbiome— among other components. The standard therapeutic food is rice- and lentil-based and contains about 20% more calories per serving than the microbiome-directed food.

“This is the first time that a microbiome-directed therapeutic food has been compared with a standard therapy in malnourished children,” Gordon said. “Moreover, it produced a superior rate of weight gain, the key primary clinical outcome of the trial.”

The research, published in April 2021 in The New England Journal of Medicine, was a collaboration between Washington University School of Medicine and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the clinical trial was conducted.

Gordon’s seminal work has emerged as a new field called microbiome research, and Gordon is, arguably, the most influential human microbiome scientist working today. Along with talented students and colleagues, he has revolutionized the understanding of human biology, implicating the gut’s microbial residents in orchestrating healthy growth and development when these communities work well, and in causing disease when they do not.

Demonstrating a career-long commitment to training the next generation of scientists and researchers, Gordon has mentored more than 140 doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. Many have gone on to become influential leaders in gut microbiome research and related fields.

Collaboration with ICDDR,B

Gordon has a longstanding collaboration with Tahmeed Ahmed, MBBS, PhD, executive director of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh, and his group studying the role of the gut microbiome in childhood malnutrition. Together, their work has led to the development of new microbiome-directed therapies for combating childhood malnutrition.