NUTRITION & PRETERM BIRTH: PROFILE OF A BORNE PHD STUDENT
AnnieBelle Sassine is a Lebanese licensed dietician and a PhD student at Imperial College. She is working on a project that links nutrition to pregnancy complications, preterm labour and fetal development with Borne Founder Professor Mark Johnson and Borne Collaborator Professor Michael Crawford.
In 2010, AnnieBelle gained her master’s degree in Public Health Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). She has worked across international research projects involving food security, maternal and child nutrition, revival of local food systems, and refugee food aid. We talked to her about her work and how Borne’s funding has impacted her career.
“Why did you choose to be a dietician?”
I have always been interested in the way nutrition interferes at various points in life cycles and affects disease and this is what led me to pursue a degree in dietetics. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I learned how crucial nutrition is in the prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) to ensure the health of vulnerable patients, including pregnant women, new-borns, children and the elderly. I then decided to pursue postgraduate studies in Nutrition for Global Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) as I wanted to work in community nutrition research, focusing on the health of populations, not only individuals.
“Why did you choose to work with pregnant women?”
My home country is very affected by ongoing conflict and this has a huge effect on the health and nutrition of the population, especially those who are more vulnerable. The recent Syrian crisis for instance has seen 1.5 million refugees travel to Lebanon, and within that population 26.5 % of women gave birth prematurely (UNFPA assessment in 2012). Pregnancy and maternal health is one of the major risks being faced by refugee in Lebanon, but it is so rarely addressed by the media. Scientific studies have shown that inadequate nutrition during the first 1000 days of life results in poor child growth and increases a child’s susceptibility to future problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Improving the nutrition and general health of women is so important, because if we focus on providing proper nutrition, safety and access to healthcare, women are far more likely to give birth to healthy children who will grow as they should. In this way, we can improve the health of future generations by acting before they are born.
“Working with Borne within their research team was a fantastic opportunity to follow my own interests and be part of something I think is so important.”
“Why did you choose to come to London to work for Borne?”
I know to make a difference I need to learn as much as I can and the UK has one of the best education systems in the world, especially for research – it encourages you to think and be proactive.
Professor Mark Johnson, Founder of Borne, was my sister-in-law’s obstetrician, and so I was lucky enough to meet him by chance. I found that in contrast to other doctors who simply checked routine scans and provided reassurance, Mark was the only one who looked further and spotted the baby’s growth restriction and delivered my nephew at 37 weeks. Without him, it was unlikely my beautiful nephew would have survived, and so I have a personal connection with his work. He told me about Borne, and the incredible work they’re doing to try to understand the causes behind preterm birth.
I had already decided to pursue a PhD, and so working with Borne within their research team was a fantastic opportunity to follow my own interests and be part of something I think is so important. I count myself very lucky to be involved with Borne along with the Little Foundation who are contributing financially to the cost of my work.
“Can you talk to us about your thesis?”
Borne, and all the team here, strongly believe that nutrition before and during pregnancy can have a real impact on preterm birth. Of course, nutrition is not behind every case of preterm birth, but it is an important risk factor. My research looks at blood lipid profiles, or the different fats contained within the blood of pregnant women and what their relation is to pregnancy outcomes, preterm birth, and fetal development. During pregnancy, some maternal essential fatty acids are important for placental growth and function, the baby’s developing brain and growth. It is suspected that these essential fatty acids, especially Omega-3 can inhibit the production of inflammation, which is linked to preterm labour.
Our study will involve thousands of pregnant women who will be followed from the beginning of pregnancy until delivery. We will look at the level of lipids in their blood during early pregnancy and relate it to preterm birth and baby’s brain development. The project will help us explore the optimal lipid levels in the blood for mothers, in the hopes that by improving the levels of fat in the blood we can improve pregnancy outcomes, specifically preterm labour.
“What is it like to work with amazing minds from all over the world?”
The Borne research group places a huge importance on teamwork and innovation. We all share information, ideas, techniques and learn from each other. I am being taught by extremely supportive and experienced scientists and doctors. This collaborative approach is so important because preterm birth is not a short-term problem; we need to train the next generation of scientists and critical thinkers who will continue our efforts.
“What is your goal, what would success look like to you?”
I hope my work, both now and in the future, will help to improve maternal and child nutrition, that ultimately will help to save lives. The idea that that is possible gives me great joy and motivation to strive to accomplish my goals.