Gates Foundation funds work on edible microballoons to improve nutrition for mothers and children in developing countries

The University of Melbourne was announced as a winner of a Grand Challenges Explorations grant, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Professor Muthupandian Ashokkumar along with Dr Francesca Cavalieri and Dr Srinivas Mettu will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Edible Micro-Balloons for Nutrition Enhancement,” aimed at relieving malnutrition among mothers and infants in developing countries.

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) supports innovative thinkers worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Professor Ashokkumar’s project is one of 34 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 21 grants announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To receive funding, Professor Ashokkumar’s team and other Grand Challenges Explorations winners demonstrated in a 2-page online application a bold idea in one of three critical global heath and development topic areas. The foundation will be accepting applications for the next GCE round in February 2019.

The grant will allow the team to produce edible microballoons made from protein that contain essential nutrients for adding to common foods to combat malnutrition in mothers and infants.

They have developed a method that uses ultrasound waves to encapsulate oil- and water-soluble vitamins and minerals within edible shells made from a range of proteins including milk and pea proteins.

Encapsulating the nutrients, rather than adding them directly to food, helps keep them stable and promotes their absorption in the body. It can also mask unpleasant tastes, and control the timing and location of nutrient release, which can increase their performance.

Professor Ashokkumar said: “We are very grateful to the Gates Foundation for awarding us this grant funding, allowing us to take our work to the next stage. We also appreciate the support of the Royal Society of Chemistry in publishing our research during the last few years as this was essential in drawing attention to the potential benefits of the method we are developing.”

Dr Francesca Cavalieri who has done seminal work with Professor Ashokkumar on the development of air/oil filled microballoons during the last 11 years said: “Edible microballoons have a great promise in enhancing the nutritional levels of various foods.”

Initial reports of Professor Ashokkumar and Dr Cavalieri, were published in Chemical Communications, Soft Matter and RSC Advances journals published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, as well as the journal Langmuir.

Dr Laura Fisher, Deputy Editor of Soft Matter, said: “It’s very rewarding for us to see how this project has progressed during the years through the pages of our journals, resulting now in this major grant that we sincerely hope will result in developments that could save lives across the world.”

For the past few years, Professor Ashokkumar and Dr Cavalieri have been focusing on using the microballoons for delivering drugs. The oral administration of biodegradable microballoons enables controlled and slow release of drugs and bioactive molecules to increase their adsorption and activity.

These properties can be tuned by controlling the degradability and rigidity of the encapsulating biopolymer/protein shell. The targeted delivery of bioactive molecules to the gut or intestine can also be achieved by controlling the rigidity and muco-adhesive properties of microballoons.

Dr Srinivas Mettu who is part of the project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “As a Chemical Engineer, I am curious about how these edible microballoons would withstand process conditions encountered in a typical food processing factory. For example, if they were to be embedded into a food matrix that would undergo repeated heating and cooling cycles, there is a possibility that the compressive forces during cooling cycle might break the microballoons."

"However, thanks to the advanced experimental techniques developed by us at the University of Melbourne, with funding support from Australian Research Council (ARC) and the University, we could measure the sturdiness of an individual microballoon and its 3D deformation to show that they are a very hard nut to break. Through experiments and numerical simulations, published in RSC journals, we showed that the microballoons can be safely embedded into food matrix without breaking, hence retaining their intended functional properties.”