CIDA backs Western graduate students’ research to improve infant health in Africa

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has backed research projects at Western University aimed at improving maternal and infant health in east Africa.  The $195,000 grant will fund thesis-based research projects for 16 Canadian graduate students, as well as one from Kenya and one from Rwanda. The first two graduate students from Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry will leave for Africa on September 13th to conduct field research.

Amy McMillan is doing a Masters in Microbiology and Immunology, and is headed to Kigali, Rwanda for three months.  Jordan Bisanz is a PhD candidate in Microbiology and Immunology, and is going to Mwanza, Tanzania for three months.  Both are supervised by Microbiology and Immunology Professor Gregor Reid, who is also the Director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics and Assistant Director of Lawson Health Research Institute.

“We’re looking at carrying out translational research on the novel use of probiotics to prevent environmental toxins from entering the body, which is of particular concern for maternal and child health.  For example, heavy metals such as mercury will interfere with child development,” says Bisanz.  “It’s an ideal population to test this principle, and with the Western Heads East project set up already in Mwanza, we have access to probiotic yoghurt, and the participants to carry out our study.”

“I’ve been studying Bacterial Vaginosis, a condition where the good bacteria in the vagina are displaced by bad bacteria.  This increases a woman’s risk of preterm labour up to three-fold.  Preterm labour is the number one cause of neonatal death in the world, and it’s particularly high in Africa,” says McMillan, who will collaborate with scientists at the University of Kigali.  “We’re looking at the small molecules produced by the bacteria to try to find either markers of preterm labour or clues as to why it’s occurring.”

The CIDA-funded initiative is led by Dr. Victor Han, Canada Research Chair in Fetal and Maternal Health, Professor of Paediatrics at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Director of the Children’s Health Research Institute.  The research will try to mitigate the adverse effects of nutritional deficiencies, infections and environmental toxins on healthy growth and development during early infancy in developing countries matching CIDA’s “Child Survival and Maternal Health” priority.  The program is also supported by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and its “Students for Development” program.

Media contact:  Kathy Wallis, Media Relations Officer, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University, 519-661-2111 ext. 81136,

Kathy Wallis