In Canada, 22 to 24 per cent of women are diagnosed with obesity at the time of conception. In Manitoba, that rate is considerably higher than the national average at 28 per cent.
“A lot of a baby’s immune system at the very beginning of life comes straight from the mom’s milk. Milk also contains hormones and growth factors that are tailored for different stages of development, and a complex microbiome that helps establish baby’s gut.
Sanoji Wijenayake博士, Assistant Professor with The University of Winnipeg’s Department of Biology, has received a Manitoba Medical Service Foundation Operating Grant to research the neurodevelopmental effects of maternal obesity exposure and to characterize the functional roles of milk exosomes, a new class of nanovesicles abundant in mammalian milk.
According to Dr. Wijenayake, breastfeeding is proposed as an effective solution to combat the risks of obesity in children.
The main objective of her work is to characterize the role of maternal milk as a biological regulator of early postnatal development and growth. Her lab will use cell culture techniques, an obesity-centric rodent model, microscopy, advanced molecular and biochemistry toolkits, and Next Generation Sequencing technologies.
“I thought this type of research and its findings could impact Indigenous health and communities,” Sandersonsaid, adding he has a deep interest in biology, health, medicine, research, and Indigenous community health.
“I think the University does a great job at making sure everyone who attends UWinnipeg gets a good understanding that there is research out there, and that it is important to the greater of society and academics,” Sanderson said.
“Dr. Wijenayake was there and talked about her research, and it really piqued my interest,” Obtial recalled. “I contacted her, and she kindly welcomed me into her lab.”
As an undergraduate student, it was important for them to gain research experience because the skills learned can be applied to many different career paths.
Dr. Wijenayake is passionate about equity, diversity, inclusion, and Indigenization of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and plans to recruit students belonging to underrepresented groups into her research program at UWinnipeg to help build the next generation of scientists.
“When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t see many professors that looked like me. So, now it is my responsibility to try and change that.”
Milk is more than just food
When talking about maternal milk, Dr. Wijenayake says most people just think of it as food for babies.
“A lot of a baby’s immune system at the very beginning of life comes straight from the mom’s milk,” she explained. “Milk also contains hormones and growth factors that are tailored for different stages of development, and a complex microbiome that helps establish baby’s gut.”
Recently, a group of small, fat-coated nanovesicles known as milk-derived exosomes were discovered in breastmilk. This is one of the main things Dr. Wijenayake is studying.
“These tiny nanovesicles transport nucleic acids (microRNAs), small proteins, enzymes, and fats from mothers to their offspring during feeding. They are also extremely stable, survive digestion, and are excellent at migrating across complex cell barriers, including the gut lining and the blood brain barrier,” she explained.
Milk exosomes have tremendous therapeutic potential to be used as effective drug carriers that surpass the limitations of currently used drug delivery vehicles (synthetic liposomes).
“Maternal obesity is a potent early life stress that may change the amount of these tiny little droplets in milk, as well as their cargo. Again, this is an area that requires immediate research, and I am excited to delve into this new field.”