In 2011 Dr. Masako Fujita founded the Biomarker Laboratory for Anthropological Research, where she and her students could conduct cutting edge anthropology research using biomarkers: measurable biochemical substances in bodies that can indicate various aspects of health. Recent grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation are funding two separate projects that together will address how variations in the beneficial contents of human milk, like antibodies and vitamins, relate to maternal health and the sex of the infant. There are substantial disparities in child mortality related to household income and sex of the infant, particularly in places in the world where gender discrimination and malnutrition are common. One contributing factor may be the level of protection that children receive from their mothers’ milk. One of the components now being measured in the lab is milk sIgA, an antibody that helps with immune protection for infants.
The study uses archived samples from rural communities in Kenya where the overwhelming majority of the mothers breastfeed their infants long-term. Dr. Fujita collected the samples as a doctoral student while investigating the link between the vitamin A levels of mothers and that of their breast milk. Vitamin A deficiency is one of the leading global health problems. It can cause night blindness and other serious complications such as compromised immune protection against infectious diseases. At the time of her dissertation research, the World Health Organization was recommending that all postpartum mothers be given a single high dose vitamin A supplement in the hopes of increasing infant vitamin A intake through breast milk and reducing child mortality. Dr. Fujita’s research, along with other studies, helped clarify that the vitamin A levels of breast milk depleted rapidly despite the supplementation, so the intervention was not significantly increasing vitamin A levels or reducing mortality in infants. The WHO has subsequently abandoned this recommendation based on the accumulating evidence that this pharmaceutical approach was not effective or sustainable.
Dr. Fujita wanted to investigate how other milk components might further shed new light on maternal and infant health. In rural Kenya, mothers are living in difficult conditions. Droughts, famine and infections are common, straining women’s ability to maintain adequate nutrition. Her overarching research interest focuses on how women “make do” nutritionally under these harsh conditions. Mothers have to manage their own and their children’s nutrition through behaviors, diet, and food allocation, but their bodies also “manage” nutrients through lactation. She hopes to better understand the conditions that affect the transfer of biological resources, like antibodies and micronutrients, from mothers to infants through breastmilk.
The Biomarker Lab currently employs two graduate (Nerli Paredes and Sabrina Perlman) and four undergraduate students. With blood and milk samples from 220 individuals to assess for six different biomarkers (sIgA, protein, lactose, and folate binding protein in milk, and folate and prolactin in blood), there are over a thousand specimens to be processed for assays in the current projects. Students learn to make serum from milk, prep the assays, run the centrifuge, manage data, label samples, and keep the lab organized.
This training opens new possibilities for the students. Savannah Sass is one undergraduate with an interest in forensic science. She’s considering a career as a medical examiner and is now getting first-hand lab experience and invaluable mentoring from Dr. Fujita. Grad student Nerli Paredes plans to conduct research on breast milk herself, and is designing a pilot study to assess milk iron levels from which she will build her dissertation project (see her article on page 6).
Sabrina Perlman, another grad student, just returned from her own dissertation fieldwork studying self-management of diabetes in Ghana. Sabrina investigated how gender and poverty affects diabetes self-management. While poverty and gender roles are known to impact health outcomes, these two have not been examined together in the context of diabetes. While her research primarily applied sociocultural methodology (she conducted interviews and participant observation with patients, doctors, and nurses), her co-chair Dr. Fujita encouraged her to incorporate a biocultural approach. Sabrina collected fasting blood sugar, blood pressure, height and weight data on 60 patients at a hospital diabetes clinic, and will be working with Dr. Fujita to analyze how these health outcomes relate to the qualitative data on the experience of self-managing diabetes in Ghana. For Sabrina, learning to link biological and sociocultural data will help her speak across different disciplines in her work.
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