WHO’s collaboration supports global nutrition research

May 17, 2022

A renewed partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) will extend the Division of Nutritional Sciences’ (DNS) global impact, engaging university experts in reviews and training that help shape WHO guidelines and research networks, according to a Rutgers’s University news release.

As part of the partnership extending into 2026, the division will serve as a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)/WHO Collaborating Centre on Nutrition Research for Health – the only such center in the U.S. dedicated to nutrition issues.

“One of our missions is the translation of research for the public good, and this is a direct example of that,” said Patricia Cassano, Division Director and the Alan D. Mathios Professor in the College of Human Ecology (CHE). “We’re applying our expertise in nutrition and health to systematic reviews that will help policymakers develop guidelines advising the world on how to improve nutrition for better health. It’s a critically important partnership.”

The collaborating center is led by Cassano and Associate Directors Julia Finkelstein, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition in DNS and Associate Professor of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), and Saurabh Mehta, the Janet and Gordon Lankton Professor in DNS, Professor of Global Development (CALS) and Director of the Program in International Nutrition.

A centerpiece of the partnership is the WHO/Cochrane/Cornell Summer Institute, to be held virtually this July with approximately 30 international nutrition scientists and practitioners expected to participate from as far as India and Ecuador.

The institute features two weeks of training in systematic reviews of nutrition interventions in populations, a process that underpins the formation of WHO guidelines. Systematic reviews define policy-relevant research questions, then examine and summarize evidence and gaps in research using rigorous methodologies championed by the nonprofit Cochrane.

For example, Cassano said, the institute recently focused on systematic reviews needed to advance WHO guidelines related to infant feeding in the context of the virus that causes COVID-19, and to reducing childhood obesity. Overall, she said, more than a dozen WHO policy guidelines have incorporated the institute’s research reviews, which she said tap division and university expertise spanning nutrition, epidemiology, public health, statistics, and information science.

Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, said he was pleased to continue a partnership with Cornell that he said has worked actively and successfully since 2016.

“We consider it essential to continue engaging and collaborating with the Division of Nutritional Sciences,” Branca said.

In addition to the systematic reviews led by Cassano, the center focuses on building the capacity of research networks in the PAHO region, which includes more than 113 summer institute alumni, through collaborative projects and multicenter studies.

“In many countries, teams have been trained and these are the experts who implement evidence-informed decision-making,” said Luis Gabriel Cuervo, PAHO/WHO’s senior adviser on research for health. “Because these teams also engage in international research collaborations, we now have networks of leaders raising the quality and resilience of local health systems and services. These capacities are invaluable assets for their communities.”

For example, summer institute alums have started Cochrane centers for systematic reviews and training in India and Malaysia.

Said Cassano: “You’re building the ability to produce reviews relevant for local and regional situations – to inform the synthesis and translation of evidence for policymakers and practitioners.”

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