A person wearing a blue lab coat and purple gloves peers into a microscope focusing on a glass dish containing orange matter
Benjamin Lee, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, is principal investigator on a $2.04 million R01 grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study the intersections of undernutrition with the intestinal microbiome and immune system development. (photo: David Seaver)

Bridging Gaps in Immunity

Research Links Gut Health to Vaccine Resistance  

June 25, 2024 by Janet Essman Franz

Undernourished children are more vulnerable to pathogens and more likely to die from vaccine-preventable infectious disease, even when vaccinated. Each year, undernutrition contributes to nearly 50 percent of global deaths in children under five years old, with most deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), particularly in sub-Sharan Africa and Asia. While the mechanisms driving this vulnerability are not understood, current findings point to gut health as a contributing factor.

“We think it is something about the intestinal environments in undernourished children that makes these children more vulnerable to severe infection,” says Benjamin Lee, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics. Lee is the principal investigator on a four-year, $2.04 million R01 grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study the intersections of undernutrition with the intestinal microbiome and immune system development among children in Bangladesh.

This new project builds upon eight years of Lee’s ongoing research at UVM, initially as Research Project Leader in the Translational Global Infectious Diseases Research Center (TGIR). The TGIR aims to decrease the burden of global infectious diseases, particularly in LMICs, while developing the research careers of outstanding junior faculty in this field.

Two people wearing lab coats look at a glass jar containing pink liquid

Mel Symeonides, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics (left), and Forida Nazib, lab research technician, collaborate in the Benjamin Lee, M.D., laboratory. (photo: David Seaver)

Lee’s previous investigations have focused on the correlates of immunity to vaccine-preventable illness in resource-limited settings. Since joining the faculty in 2015, Lee has focused specifically on identifying immune correlates of protection for rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea and kills more than 100,000 children each year. While vaccines effectively prevent rotavirus in children living in high-income nations, these same vaccines are only half as effective in LMICs. Lee’s findings implicate multiple factors to vaccine response. 

Lee’s current projects also include a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to investigate adenovirus infections in LMICs and a supplemental award from the TGIR program, jointly funded with Jessica Crothers, M.D., assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, to examine the infant gut microbiome and how this relates to immunity to vaccines for rotavirus and polio.

Lee further serves as director of the TGIR visiting scholar program, which hosts scientists from LMIC at UVM to stimulate academic collaborations. Since launching the program in 2022, Lee has hosted scientists from South Africa, Thailand, and Zambia. Through international partnerships, the Lee lab helps to reduce the disproportionately high burden of diseases in lower resource regions and save the lives of children around the world.

 

Benjamin Lee, M.D., bibliography

Three people in a lab, two who are focusing on and pointing to a computer monitor, and one in background seated and working

Dr. Lee's lab team includes biological sciences major Erika Bopp '25, who works as a research assistant. (photo: David Seaver)

“We think it is something about the intestinal environments in undernourished children that makes these children more vulnerable to severe infection.”

— Benjamin Lee, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics