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Dr. Emily Smith on "Optimizing Nutrition for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health"

On Wednesday, October 21, 2020, an international consortium of researchers from over 55 countries worldwide convened in virtual format for the "Optimizing Nutrition for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health" eSymposia, held in conjunction with the Gates Grand Challenges meeting.

Meeting co-organizer Dr. Emily Smith welcomed everyone and set the stage for the event with a fantastic description of the state of the field, how it has evolved over the past decades, and where it is heading.  With exciting new global collaborations and advances in research technologies, scientists are pinpointing nutritional, prebiotic, probiotic, and behavioral interventions to minimize malnutrition and developmental deficits.  Their efforts are making a huge difference, particularly in low- and middle- income countries, to ensure the healthy development of children from preconception, through pregnancy, breastfeeding and early childhood stages.

In this blog, we share the meeting organizer's vision for the event, and the field

Profile picutre: Dr. Emily Smith

Dr. Emily Smith's Remarks on the State of the Maternal Nutrition & Emerging Directions

"On behalf of my scientific organizing committee colleagues—Dr. Anura Kurpad of St. Johns Research Institute in Bangalore, India, and Dr. Farhad Imam of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington—I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome you to this Keystone Symposium!

For those of you who are new to Keystone—as I was about a year ago, and as I suspect many of my epidemiology, population health, and nutrition colleagues may be—Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology is a non-profit organization with a goal of bridging basic and clinical research across the academic, industry, and global health sectors, in order to promote translational scientific advances with the potential for medical and public health benefit.  And these objectives align perfectly with our perspective about the direction we believe that the field of global maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition need to move. With registrants from 55 countries globally for this symposium, it seems like you all agree with us.

Most often basic biomedical research is conducted on the campuses of major research universities in high-income countries. And generally, research and development fail to address the needs of women and children around the world. Research shows that when R&D developments are made for maternal and child health, they are largely dedicated to pediatric populations."

"But, the field is changing thanks to scientists, activists, and funding agencies."

"There is growing recognition of the importance of maternal nutrition and fetal growth to ensuring a positive pregnancy experience. For decades, much of the global nutrition effort has focused on treating severe acute malnutrition or preventing linear growth failure in older children. But in our first track today, you’ll see scientists make the case for why starting sooner and focusing on maternal nutrition is key to making global progress.

Another shift happening now is a new focus on nutrition in the newborn and early infant period. This is good news because although the under-five child mortality rate has decreased by 58% in the last 3 decades, WHO estimates 5.4 million children died in 2017. More than half of these child deaths now occur in the neonatal period. This is a problem because we have so few tools in our toolkit to address neonatal mortality. We argue that innovative solutions in newborn and early infant nutrition are key to accelerating progress in child survival."

"Finally, we see growing opportunities and models for ethical collaboration between the academic, public, and private sector."

"Although the global maternal nutrition community has, admittedly, been reticent to collaborate with industry since the late 1970s and ‘80s following major concerns related to the aggressive marketing of infant formula in the global south, there is a growing recognition that thoughtful public-private partnerships are an essential part of identifying, testing, and scaling up sustainable solutions that meet the needs of women and children globally.

Given these changes in epidemiology, as well as the scientific and funding landscape, it’s really a perfect time for this global meeting. We aim to showcase new research—across the human life cycle—from around the world. We’re pleased to have leaders and pioneers in a number of fields from molecular nutrition to neonatology.

"And I’m so excited to see the novel work of emerging leaders..." Dr. Alicia Jane Twigger’s single-cell sequencing work to better under the basic biology of breastmilk and Dr. Martha Mwangome whose ongoing efforts to conduct and translate research into effective implementation to improve the care and treatment for infants <6 months with severe acute malnutrition in Kenya.

I’m especially honored to introduce our Keynote Speaker, Dr. Bahl, one of our thought leaders in global maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition, as I myself have learned a great deal from him over the past decade. He thinks deeply about big problems, about creative solutions, about how research can and should inform global policy, and about how to train and mentors young people to drive this mission forward."

Dr. Bahl leads the research team in the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Aging, World Health Organization, Geneva. He is the head of WHO Newborn Health Unit. He is a pediatrician by training with a PhD in public health who has been working on newborn and child health research for 30 years. Prior to joining WHO, he was a Research Scientist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India for over a decade, where he led many community-based research projects on development and evaluation of newborn and child health and nutrition interventions.

Dr. Bahl has been working for WHO since 2003 and his work has focused on developing and scaling up interventions for improving newborn and child survival. An important focus of his work has been promotion of research capacity development in low- and middle-income countries through collaborative multi-country research projects."


Shannon Weiman
Shannon Weiman earned her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, specializing in microbiology and immunology. Prior to joining the Keystone Symposia team, she worked as a freelance writer for leaders in academic, industry and government research, including Stanford University’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative, the University of Colorado’s Biofrontiers Program, UCSF, the FDA and the American Society for Microbiology.