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Infant gut bacteria has profound implications on long-term health

Anita KozyrskyjTime is essential to good research, but it can be a scarce commodity for many investigators who also have busy schedules as academics and clinicians.
“You’re juggling teaching, research and administrative responsibilities, and often a clinical practice,” says Dr. Anita Kozyrskyj, a renowned epidemiologist and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Alberta.
A five-year (2008-2013) Women and Children’s Health Research Institute chair in maternal-child health and the environment enabled Kozyrskyj to focus on her research in infant gut microbiota and become one of the world’s leading experts in the field. Her studies have found that the establishment of gut bacteria during infancy and in some cases pregnancy can have profound implications on long-term health. Her latest publication, featured online in Time magazine, has challenged traditional thinking that a baby’s first exposure to bacteria begins at birth and showed that bacterial growth begins earlier, in the womb, and is influenced by maternal health.
Gut microbiota are essential to our health and well-being, explains Kozyrskyj. Our bodies acquire a rich environment of bacteria—a microbiota—in our digestive systems early in life. These microbes help to digest our food, produce vitamins and protect against infections. They also stimulate the development of the immune system during infancy. The disruption of this normal gut bacterial colonization in infants has been linked to many health conditions from asthma and allergies to diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer.
Kozyrskyj became interested in studying microbiota early in her term as WCHRI chair. In August 2008, Kozyrskyj, along with key colleagues at the University of Toronto, submitted a proposal for a pilot study and then a team grant, eventually receiving $2.5 million to study the impact of antibiotic treatment on infant gut microbiota from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The national funding agency was looking to fund microbiome studies in what was then an emerging new field. Kozyrskyj was keen to tackle the topic after conducting several studies on the consequences of antibiotic treatment in infants. Dr. Anita Kozyrskyj, shown here with some of her students, is a leading world expert in infant gut bacteria.
Kozyrskyj and her SyMBIOTA (Synergy in Microbiota) team began their study with 24 infants in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) cohort. That led to a 2013 paper, which eventually received an award as the Canadian Medical Journal’s most relevant and impactful paper of the year. The study has steadily expanded, generating subsequent papers, and now includes 2,000 infants, whose health is monitored at regular intervals as they age.
As the sample size grows, Kozyrskyj and her colleagues are able to dig deeper and make new discoveries about how maternal health, including diet, weight and even stress, can affect gut bacterial composition and children’s health and development. The rich data set may ultimately influence many health practices, from elective caesarean delivery to antibiotic use during labour and breastfeeding.
“This is a very valuable Canadian resource that will make a difference to the future health of pregnant women and their newborns,” Kozyrskyj says.
Kozyrskyj’s research has been funded by the generous support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.