A Canadian professor has been awarded a prestigious science grant that will allow him to develop an idea to fortify tea leaves with iron, a project that could help reduce the maternal and perinatal death rate in the developing world.
Levente Diosady, a professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto, was the only Canadian on Wednesday to receive a $250,000 grant at the Washington ceremony of Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development.
The international competition, in its third year, gives out grants to innovators with ideas that have the potential to save the lives of mothers and newborns in developing countries.
The competition is sponsored by the Canadian-government funded Grand Challenges Canada, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Britain's Department of International Development, the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Fifty-three innovators from around the world were shortlisted from more than 400 entries. Only 22 were awarded grants.
"I'm excited, this was sort of an unexpected and pleasant surprise," Dr. Diosady said from Washington, just minutes after being awarded the grant. "Honestly, I wasn't expecting to win because I'm a chemical engineer and I'm here surrounded by obstetricians, mid-wives and pharmaceutical people."
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 600,000 perinatal deaths, and more than 100,000 maternal deaths, are caused by iron deficiency every year.
WHO estimates that in developing countries, every second pregnant woman and about 40 per cent of preschool children are anemic.
Dr. Diosady was part of a team that was first to fortify salt with iodine, then later with iron. He says trying to fortify tea with iron was the next logical step.
"Tea is really consumed in South Asia by practically everybody, but the problem is the chemistry is much, much more difficult," he said. "The last couple of years we've been working with the delivery system."
The biggest challenge has been overcoming a biomolecule in tea called tannin. When iron and tannin meet, a compound is formed which the body is not able to absorb.
"So it doesn't matter how much iron you add to tea, it won't have any beneficial effect," Dr. Diosday said about past efforts to use tea as an iron-delivery system.
The technology Dr. Diosady has developed encapsulates the iron in a coating, preventing it from reacting with the tannin.
He says it's not unlike the way aspirin is often coated, but his technology is on the microscopic level.
The end goal is to get the encapsulated iron to the intestines where it can then be absorbed by the body. He says the $250,000 grant will allow his team to determine what kind of coating will work best with tea, as well as withstand the heat of hot water.
The technology has not been tested on tea leaves, but Dr. Diosady says the iron will be undetectable to sight, and most importantly to taste. He says additional funding will then be required to manufacture the iron premix on a large scale. He says he hopes his idea will be fully developed within the next five years.
Peter A. Singer, the CEO of Grand Challenges Canada – the Canadian-government funded organization that sponsors the competition – says Dr. Diosady's idea has the potential to have huge impacts on global health. "Iron deficiency is a big killer of women and children," he said from Washington. "It's not a complicated idea, it's a simple idea but one that can save a lot of lives at birth."
Dr. Diosady says one potential challenge down the road will be getting tea manufactures in the developing world to buy into the idea. He says he hopes organizations like the Ottawa-Based Micronutrient Initiative – which has worked extensively to eliminate vitamin and mineral deficiency in the developing worlid – will be able to help get his technology implemented where it's needed most.
"The time is long gone when the developed world will go into a developing country and say this is what you should do and then go away. So it's a sales job as well, and you have to convince them that this is useful and attractive and economically viable," he said, adding that the cost of the technology will cost about 2 to 3 cents per person per year. "So even the poorest of the poor can absorb this if they can be convinced to."