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Measuring Well-being

Experts Discuss Tools to Fight Malnutrition

Biomarkers

Biomarkers are used to understand a person´s nutritional status. Biomarkers can be specific cells, molecules, or genes. (Photo: S. Henriques/IAEA)

Researchers are tracking "biomarkers" to measure a wide variety of phenomena, ranging from the Earth´s oxygen content billions of years ago to a search for life elsewhere in the Solar System. In medicine, biomarkers, or simply biological substances produced or metabolized in the body, can be objectively measured to give information about health and disease. When biomarkers are tracked, many conditions, from ageing to cancer, from malnutrition to neurological diseases, can be assessed.

This week, around 80 experts from various organisations around the world gather in Vienna, Austria to discuss biomarkers in nutrition, and recommend the best methods for defining the biomarkers that are most effective in measuring particular nutrient deficiencies.

"Participants in this meeting represent the global movers and shakers in nutrition research, policy, programmes and clinical applications," says Werner Burkart, Deputy Director General responsible for Nuclear Applications in the IAEA.

The experts aim to define biomarkers based on how much of a particular nutrient is eaten or metabolized, well-being, and the absence or presence of specific nutrients in a diet. They will be working to harmonise their research methods, so that results from different countries can be easily compared. In reviewing the existing research on the biomarkers under discussion at the meeting - iron, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and folate - the experts will identify where gaps in the research need to be closed. Finally, the group will determine which biomarkers are the best new candidates for study, considering new technologies in medicine.

The IAEA and its partners undertake nutritional research to seek reliable means to reduce the risks that arise from a poor diet. Malnutrition can have devastating effects on human health, causing deficiency diseases in childhood that can be fatal or lead to life-long disability. Also, common chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis all have strong nutritional correlations.

"Nutrition is one of four priority areas within the Division of Human Health at the IAEA. We assist our Member States in their efforts to combat malnutrition in all its forms and of course, we do not work in isolation," says Burkart.

Measurement techniques, such as the methodology that the IAEA´s Human Health programme supports, stable isotope techniques, can for instance tell health professionals how much human milk a breastfed infant is consuming and the ratio of lean tissue to fat in children and adults by assessing body composition. They can track how the body takes in, uses and retains "micronutrients", such as vitamins and minerals, that are vital in supporting healthy growth and development. "More and more, the usefulness of nuclear techniques in nutrition is recognized globally and the IAEA´s role in providing technical guidance in the use of, in particular, stable isotope techniques is now widely known."

Background

The Biomarkers of Nutrition for Development meeting, from 8 to 10 February 2010, brings together the many international partners working in this area for the first time.

The meeting is being sponsored by a number of organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the IAEA, the US National Institutes of Health, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Participants will include international experts on micronutrient nutrition as well as representatives from Ministries of Health, UN agencies (World Health Organisation, UNICEF, World Food Programme), non-governmental organizations like Helen Keller International, partners such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Agriculture, US National Cancer Institute, the Micronutrient Initiative, HarvestPlus, and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.

See Story Resources for more information.

By Sasha Henriques, IAEA Division of Public Information