Oviita at a Glance
Vitamin A Deficiency
Understanding the Importance of Vitamin A
An estimated 250 million children worldwide are currently suffering from Vitamin A deficiency (WHO, 2020). Vitamin A deficiency, also known as VAD, is one of the leading causes of preventable childhood mortality, also playing roles in causing reproductive issues, reduced immune function, vision loss, and in severe cases, xerophthalmia, the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness (UNICEF, 2019). While VAD has essentially been eradicated in many places around the globe, parts of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are still facing a Vitamin A crisis. It disproportionately harms some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, particularly pregnant women and children. These groups typically lack access to varied diets, due to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.
Figure 1. Colour-coded map depicting areas of no significant prevalence of VAD to areas of high prevalence of VAD.
Vitamin A refers to a group of fat-soluble retinoids, and as a result, it requires fat to be properly absorbed by the body. Vitamin A cannot be synthesized by the body, so it is taken up in two forms: preformed Vitamin A, as found in meat and fish, or provitamin A carotenoids, most commonly in the form of beta-carotene (National Institutes of Health, 2020). Beta-carotene rich foods include green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, and orange vegetables, such as sweet potatoes (National Institutes of Health, 2020). Where preformed Vitamin A can be toxic to the body in high enough concentrations, beta-carotene and other carotenoids do not carry that same risk.
Figure 2. Conversion of beta-carotene to retinol
The low fat diets of the affected South Asian and Sub Saharan African areas also play a role in reduced Vitamin A uptake. For example, up to 70% of a South Asian diet consists solely of rice, a grain with very low lipid content (Bishwajit et al., 2013). Frankly, rice is cheap, making it much more accessible for poorer and rural regions. Many of these areas also lack fortified foods, making it more difficult for the population to obtain the necessary nutrients to maintain health (Vitamin Angels, 2020). Not coincidentally, these demographics are hit hard by Vitamin A deficiency.
THE OVIITA PHILOSOPHY
Expanding Upon Previous Solutions
In 1990, the World Summit for Children called for the ‘virtual elimination of Vitamin A deficiency and its consequences, including blindness’ (UNICEF, 2000). Since then, initiatives such as the Golden Rice Project, Micronutrient Days, and increased biofortification have greatly reduced the prevalence of Vitamin A Deficiency. 39% of people in low and middle income nations were Vitamin A deficient in 1991, compared to 29% in 2013 (Stevens et al., 2015). Despite this vast improvement, many nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia still see up to 48% of the population suffering from the deficiency and its consequences (Stevens et al., 2015). The aforementioned initiatives to battle VAD were impressive. So why didn’t they seem to work?
The answer lies primarily in the lack of sustainability of these solutions. The Golden Rice Project is a strain of rice genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. Golden Rice, despite all of its potential to be a Vitamin A superfood, still requires lots of time, space, and labour to grow. Most of these areas not only consume rice, but also export it, making it a valuable crop in regards to economic potential. The pushback against golden rice has made nations skeptical in cultivating it, as current GMO containment strategies are mediocre at best. There are fears that countries that start growing Golden Rice might also contaminate white rice exports (Lenz, 2015). Both India and Bangladesh lie within the Top 5 rice-producing nations, so rice exports play a huge role in their economy, as well as in the economy of other South Asian countries (Bishwajit et al. 2013).
Micronutrient Days are popular in regions of Africa, but are unfortunately, few and far between. For example, Burkina Faso has held two “Vitamin A Days” annually, where Vitamin A and other important supplements are given out (Bruins & Kraemer, 2013). But according to Dr. Dia Sanou, there will still be people who will never be able to access these supplements, whether it be due to other afflictions that lessen the uptake of Vitamin A, personal matters that get in the way of attending these micronutrient days, or a lack of infrastructure that prevents easy access to obtaining these supplements. Another problem with Micronutrient Days are that they are based on external infrastructure. Without aid organizations hosting these events, there is no way to obtain Vitamin A supplements.
Biofortification of food is another initiative held in many of these places, but lack of access to a diversified diet also results in a lack of access to fortified food, whether this be due to expenses, distance, or availability.
Figure 3. Vitamin A mitigation strategies
Our conversations with anthropologists, humanitarian organizations, and medical professionals have introduced us to the requirements for effectively tackling VAD. In order to promote autonomy and decrease reliance on external aid organizations, our solution must be practical and simple, providing the tools to set-up and maintain a Vitamin A distribution system within the community. It must be inexpensive and accessible, making use of materials that people can easily obtain. And finally, its implementation must be flexible, allowing it to easily integrate into local conditions and culture.
This is where Oviita comes in.
Our goal is to ensure that by using Oviita, communities are able to independently produce Vitamin A in an easy and accessible manner, eventually leading to the mitigation and elimination of Vitamin A Deficiency.
Oviita is a system involving a food-safe strain of yeast, Y. lipolytica, that has been engineered to produce beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. When selecting our yeast chassis, we had six major considerations:
To promote sustainability, this yeast has also been engineered to include cellulase enzymes, so it can digest cellulose. Due to this, the Oviita yeast can be grown simply and inexpensively in the community using straw, indigestible grain husks, or other agricultural waste byproducts as food. These sources of cellulose currently go unused, and are sometimes even simply burned in the fields, contributing to air pollution. By diverting this waste material into a valuable resource for cultivating Oviita with small-scale, locally-led production, we empower communities to improve their health and take their nutritional security into their own hands.
Oviita can be cultivated simply and intuitively, using mainly resources individuals already have on hand. A community ‘bioreactor’ provides an easily accessible and contained vessel for the yeast to be cultivated. The yeast can be harvested directly from this vessel, where it can be skimmed off, cooked, and added to any food as an edible supplement. We’ve developed a series of recipes that can be made with the addition of the Oviita yeast to it.
The production of a Vitamin-A rich supplement and developing a vessel for its cultivation is not enough to alleviate the multi-faceted issue of Vitamin A deficiency. So, we set out to hit some other issues that also affect the prevalence of Vitamin A deficiency. In order to ensure that the Oviita yeast is grown in a safe environment and that it would not affect the environment in case of escape, we developed a biocontainment system. To further incorporate Oviita into the community and promote growth, we ideated some Micro-Enterprise opportunities. The Randle’s Cell Testing Device is a field-based method to test for Vitamin A deficiency. And last, but not least, the addition of thymol, an anthelmintic compound, to the yeast, leads to deworming and increased Vitamin A absorption.
To learn more about the many facets of Oviita, click on the pipeline below:
Bishwajit, G., Sarker, S., Kpoghomou, M., Gao, H., Jun, L., Yin, D., and Ghosh, S. (2013). Self-sufficiency in rice and food security: A South Asian Perspective. Agric & Food Secur. 2(10). 10.1186/2048-7010-2-10
Bruins, M., & Kraemer, K. (2013). Public health programmes for vitamin A deficiency control. Community eye health, 26(84), 69–70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3936688/
Lenz, R. (2015). Golden Rice in India: Is it necessary? What are impediments to adoption? Genetic Literacy Project. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/05/26/golden-rice-in-india-is-it-necessary-what-are-impediments-to-adoption/.
National Institutes of Health. (2020). Vitamin A. National Institutes of Health. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
Stevens, G., Bennett, J., Hennocq, Q., Lu, Y., De-Regil, L., Rogers, L., Danaei, G., Li, G., White, R., Flaxman, S., Oehrle, S., Finucane, M., Guerrero, R., Bhutta, Z., Then-Paulino, A., Fawzi, W., Black, R., and Ezzati, M. (2015). Trends and mortality effects of vitamin A deficiency in children in 138 low-income and middle-income countries between 1991 and 2013: a pooled analysis of population based surveys. Lancet Glob. Health. 3(9): 528-536. 10.1016/S2214-109X(15)00039-X
United Nations Children’s Fund. (2000). First Call for Children. United Nations Digital Library. https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/469118?ln=en.
United Nations Children’s Fund (2019). Vitamin A. UNICEF DATA. https://data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/vitamin-a-deficiency/.
World Health Organization. (2020). Micronutrient Deficiencies. Nutrition. https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/.
Vitamin Angels. (2020). Vitamin A. Vitamin Angels. https://www.vitaminangels.org/vitamin-a-deficiency