Image of blood cells

Proteomics May Identify Nutritional Deficiencies in Poor Communities

Proteomics could enable low-cost nutritional testing in poor communities.

By Michael Eisenstein • Image by Virusowy/iStock

A 2013 journey to rural Nepal as a PhD student exposed Sun-Eun Lee, PhD ’15, MS, to the devastating effects of malnutrition. Now an assistant scientist in the Center for Human Nutrition, Lee is searching for blood-based signatures that might help identify nutritional deficits earlier—and allow for targeted interventions.

Poverty and limited food options in Nepal’s remote Sarlahi District contribute to widespread impairment of children’s physical and mental development. Unfortunately, monitoring nutritional status with laboratory testing is complicated and expensive. Measuring blood levels of micronutrients—essential vitamins and minerals typically consumed only in trace amounts—is especially challenging, requiring laboratories with sophisticated equipment not often accessible in low-income countries.

Lee hopes to enable affordable, onsite nutritional testing by identifying proxies for micronutrient deficiency that may prove easier to measure. To achieve this, her team employed an approach called proteomics, using mass spectrometry to simultaneously survey the levels of thousands of proteins in blood samples. “We wanted to see which proteins are correlated with [the] status of different micronutrients,” says Lee.

Her team found such biomarkers in their Nepalese cohort that indicate deficiency in vitamins A, E, D and K, and minerals such as selenium and copper.

Proteomics could also help anticipate developmental problems in young children. For example, Lee and colleagues identified proteins correlated with low weight, height and muscle mass. They also observed a clear association between cognitive and intellectual deficits and proteins linked with chronic inflammation.

With protein targets in hand, it becomes possible to develop simple antibody-based detection assays. Lee is looking to validate these findings as a step toward developing low-cost blood tests for early signs of malnourishment.

“If there were a small device that could tell us the status of 20 essential micronutrients from a drop of blood, that would be a breakthrough,” says Lee.