Understanding the role of the gut in undernutrition: what can technology tell us?

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Gut function remains largely underinvestigated in undernutrition, despite its critical role in essential nutrient digestion, absorption and assimilation. In areas of high enteropathogen burden, alterations in gut barrier function and subsequent inflammatory effects are observable but remain poorly characterised. Environmental enteropathy (EE)-a condition that affects both gut morphology and function and is characterised by blunted villi, inflammation and increased permeability-is thought to play a role in impaired linear growth (stunting) and severe acute malnutrition. However, the lack of tools to quantitatively characterise gut functional capacity has hampered both our understanding of gut pathogenesis in undernutrition and evaluation of gut-targeted therapies to accelerate nutritional recovery. Here we survey the technology landscape for potential solutions to improve assessment of gut function, focussing on devices that could be deployed at point-of-care in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs). We assess the potential for technological innovation to assess gut morphology, function, barrier integrity and immune response in undernutrition, and highlight the approaches that are currently most suitable for deployment and development. This article focuses on EE and undernutrition in LMICs, but many of these technologies may also become useful in monitoring of other gut pathologies.

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Authors: Alex J Thompson, Claire D Bourke, Ruairi C Robertson, Nirupama Shivakumar, Christine A Edwards, Tom Preston, Elaine Holmes, Paul Kelly, Gary Frost, Douglas J Morrison, HUNGer Consortium