Saving babies: WSU leads study of health, lactation

By Joanna Steward, College of Arts and Sciences

McGuire,-left,-and-Meehan-160PULLMAN, Wash. – Working with colleagues from 12 institutions around the globe, two Washington State University researchers are leading the first comprehensive international study of human lactation and milk composition.

“It’s all about saving babies,” said Michelle McGuire, associate professor of biology at WSU and principal investigator (PI) for a three-year $950,000 National Science Foundation grant funding the project.

Biological and anthropological data will be collected at 11 sites in eight countries across Europe, Africa and North and South America to better understand how diet, hygiene and cultural practices relate to human milk composition and infant health.“Around the world, and especially in developing countries, breastfeeding is one of the most important things that women can do to decrease morbidity and mortality in their infants,” said McGuire. “We know that, but we don’t know everything about why that is.

“Our goal is to understand what is normal for a given region and how the composition of the milk, the local cultural practices and even genetics relate to the health of the infant,” she said.

If researchers can determine what supports optimal infant health, either globally or in a particular location, interventions might be developed to improve infant health and reduce neonatal illness and death.

Interdisciplinary excellence

Beginning this summer, samples and anthropological data will be collected at sites in Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Peru, Spain, Sweden and the United States. The diverse locations and various subject criteria will provide researchers with several ethnically, geographically and potentially genetically matched data sets to analyze.

Meehan in the Central African Republic
Meehan in the Central African Republic

“Lactation isn’t just a physiological event. Breastfeeding is also influenced by the temperament of the infant and the mother and certainly by cultural practice,” said Courtney Meehan, assistant professor in anthropology at WSU and co-PI for the project. “If we are to understand what is normal for human milk, we need to be able to understand it from a multifaceted perspective.”

The research team is comprised of physiologists, nutritional scientists, biological and cultural anthropologists, microbiologists and mathematicians.

“I call it the dream team of international lactation and breastfeeding research,” said McGuire. “They are all very experienced researchers who already have completed successful long-term field studies at the project sites so we should be able to accomplish a great deal in a relatively short period.”

McGuire flanked by research volunteers
McGuire flanked by research volunteers

The project will be the first to statistically analyze anthropological and environmental data alongside genomics data of the microbial communities of human milk and the corresponding bacteria present in the gastrointestinal tracts of infants.

It will also be the first large-scale application of new molecular and bioinformatics techniques that will assist researchers in surveying complex microbial communities

Finding inspiration

Despite six years of working on the same campus and their common research interest in infant health and breastfeeding, Michelle McGuire and Courtney Meehan only learned about each other when a colleague suggested they have lunch together. Read more at CAS Connect,

Principle investigators:

  • Michelle (Shelley) McGuire, biology, Washington State University
  • Courtney Meehan, anthropology, Washington State University


  • Egerton University (Kenya): Elizabeth Kamau-Mbuthia, nutrition; Samwel Mbugua, nutrition
  • Instituto de Investigacion Nutricional (Peru): Rossina Pareja, nutrition
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health:  Andrew Prentice, nutrition; Sophie Moore, nutrition
  • Lund University (Sweden): Linda Kvist, biology
  • McGill University: Grace Marquis, nutrition
  • University of California San Diego: Lars Bode, glycochemistry
  • University of Colorado, Boulder: Robin Bernstein, anthropology
  • Universidad Complutense de Madrid: Juan Miguel Rodriguez, microbiology
  • University of Idaho: James Foster, computational biology; Mark McGuire, biology
  • University of Ghana: Gloria Ooto, nutrition
  • University of Toronto: Daniel Sellen, anthropology
  • Washington State University: Omar Cornejo, evolutionary genomics



Michelle (Shelley) McGuire, WSU School of Biological Sciences,, 509-335-3896

Courtney Meehan, WSU Department of Anthropology,, 509-335-5416

Joanna Steward, WSU College of Arts and Sciences,, 509-335-3933