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Texas A&M AgriLife researcher receives $4 million grant to study feeding intolerance in preterm infants


For infants, especially those born prematurely, nutrient absorption and proper development go hand in hand. However, no precise measures or clinical tools exist to measure nutrient absorption or to reliably differentiate between benign and life-threatening symptoms in the preterm infant. 

When an infant has symptoms that suggest trouble digesting milk or formula, physicians work to rule out worst-case scenarios such as severe intestinal injury or necrotizing enterocolitis, NEC. A clinician’s response may involve stopping tube feedings, ordering serial abdominal radiographs and initiating broad-spectrum antibiotics. These interventions, however, could threaten an infant’s growth, gastrointestinal microbiome and neurocognitive development. 

To test an intervention without these side effects, Dr. Robert Chapkin, Allen Endowed Chair in Nutrition and Chronic Disease Prevention, Department of Nutrition and Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Texas A&M AgriLife researcher, will lead research to apply a noninvasive method developed by the Chapkin lab. 

The novel method developed by Chapkin enables researchers to assess the intestinal physiology of a baby, including an accurate determination of their nutrient absorption. By examining the intestinal cells exfoliated in the baby’s feces, clinicians will be able to noninvasively assess neonatal gut, which is the primary site of nutrient absorption and the host immune system. This assessment might help eliminate more limited or potentially harmful treatments. 

“Believe it or not, clinicians basically still don’t really know what’s going on in these babies,” said Chapkin. “We developed a noninvasive methodology where we capture gene expression information, i.e., an mRNA molecular fingerprint, from intestinal cells that are exfoliated into the fecal stream.”

Chapkin and his research team recently received a new five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, NIH, for this project. The $3.9 million grant will help researchers assess the nutritional and clinical predictors of intestinal maturation and feeding intolerance in the preterm infant. 

“This is the evolution of a long collaborative process where we are focusing on nutrition in newborn babies and, to some degree, babies who are born extremely premature,” said Chapkin. “The question is, what sort of nutrition do these children need for optimal health?”

Dr. Sharon Donovan, Hagler Scholar, professor, Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair in Nutrition and Health, and director of the Personalized Nutrition Initiative, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is helping lead the grant. 

Additional collaborators include Dr. Camilia Martin, division chief of neonatology, Weill Cornell Medicine; Dr. Sarah Taylor, professor of pediatrics and chief, section of neonatal-perinatal medicine, as well as director of clinical research, Yale School of Medicine; and Dr. Ivan Ivanov, research professor, Texas A&M University Department of Biomedical Engineering, and clinical professor, Texas A&M Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology.