The University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute (UNC NRI) announced today that it is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Steven H. Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished University Professor in Nutrition and Pediatrics and UNC NRI Director, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Choline and Optimal Development”.

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Zeisel’s project is one of over 100 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 8 grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Grand Challenges Explorations encourages individuals worldwide to expand the pipeline of ideas where creative, unorthodox thinking is most urgently needed,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We’re excited to provide additional funding for select grantees so that they can continue to advance their idea towards global impact.”

To receive funding, Zeisel and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 8 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, immunization and nutrition. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9, will be accepted through May 15, 2012.

The proposed research on choline and brain development is a collaboration among Zeisel, Carol Cheatham, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences, and Andrew Prentice, Ph.D., scientific director of the Medical Research Council’s Keneba field station in The Gambia, Africa.

Zeisel is credited with the discovery of choline’s role as an essential nutrient, particularly for fetal and infant development. His research indicates that women need to eat diets adequate in choline, which is found in foods such as eggs, to assure optimal brain development in their infants. In addition, several common genetic misspellings, called SNPs, make some women require especially high amounts of choline in their diets. Dietary choline intake in young women is low in low- and middle-income countries and perhaps increasing maternal intake of choline will enhance brain development, as measured by memory function tests, in children.

The Grand Challenges Explorations grant will enable Zeisel and colleagues to design a diet intervention that can be implemented in The Gambia, where diet intake of choline is less than half the recommended Adequate Intake. First, investigators at the UNC institute will develop methods for testing infant memory that will work when used in the field in Africa. Also, researchers will test solar-powered instruments for studying brainwaves in infants. These methods will be tested in a study of pregnant women and their babies in Kannapolis. At the same time, the team will conduct studies to determine which of the SNPs in genes of choline metabolism are common in The Gambia. The data generated from these studies will enable Zeisel and colleagues to design and implement an intervention that assures adequate intake of choline in a population in The Gambia and assess whether this enhances brain development.

About Grand Challenges Explorations
Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 600 people in 45 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

About the UNC Nutrition Research Institute
The UNC Nutrition Research Institute (UNC NRI), part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is dedicated to developing the field of individualized nutrition — understanding why people have different metabolism and nutrient requirements. Long term, the NRI’s discoveries will lead to individually tailored nutrition recommendations that will allow people to customize their diets in order to maximize wellness and reduce risk of disease. The UNC NRI is located on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.