When it comes to breast milk, Meghan Azad is the $6.5-million researcher.
That's how much the Winnipeg researcher has been granted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a new global health initiative to examine — more in-depth than ever before — how breast milk helps babies grow and fight illnesses.
"It's the largest grant I've ever received," Azad said Tuesday. "The way (the foundation) works is, they find you. They found out about my breast milk research.
"I had to pinch myself for a few days."
Azad — an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, as well as the Canada Research Chair in developmental origins of chronic disease and a research scientist at the Children's Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba — will combine her work with that of other researchers in maternal nutrition and infant growth in Tanzania, Pakistan, Nepal and Burkina Faso.
During the next three years, researchers in the new International Milk Composition Consortium will collect samples of breast milk from 1,200 mother-infant pairs to be analyzed at the U of M.
As well, Azad said the research grant means her current study, involving 3,500 Canadian infants, will be completed. She currently has only been able to look at about 1,000 of those samples taken during the last five years.
"We don't need a very large volume, we only need one millilitre... mom expresses enough milk (for us) and then the rest to baby," she said.
The consortium researchers will get two samples of breast milk: one when the baby is two months of age; the other when the child is six months old, Azad said.
They will then look at all the components of the breast milk samples, including fat, protein and hormones.
"I think we're going to find out a lot of new information. By looking at it in totality, it will give us new answers... (Breast milk) is so fundamentally important to infant health and yet we know surprisingly little about breast milk composition and its variation around the world," Azad said.
"This project will help us learn about how human milk helps healthy babies develop and grow up healthy."
Azad has never met Bill nor Melinda Gates, but hopes to someday. (Bill Gates is a co-founder of software giant Microsoft Corp., and has been ranked by Forbes magazine for more than two decades as one of the richest people in the world.)
"The University of Manitoba thanks the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for this commitment to improving the health of children and mothers around the globe," Digvir Jayas, U of M vice-president, research and international, said in a statement.
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