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Project at University of Surrey: Determining the importance of iron nutrition in optimizing immune health in particular ethnic groups

   FoodBioSystems DTP

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  Prof S Lanham-New, Prof J Lovegrove, Dr K Hart, Prof Ian Givens  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Project description:

Iron deficiency anaemia is a huge problem in the world. It is particularly a public health issue in certain demographic groups – in women of child-bearing age and in older men and women from Black and South Asian populations. The World Health Organization estimates that around two billion people are anaemic globally, which makes it one of the most common nutrition disorders.  Anaemia can lead to significant health consequences including increased susceptibility to infection and illness, cardiovascular complications and poor brain development.   What we also know is that vitamin D deficiency is becoming increasingly common in the UK, EU and worldwide and that there may well be a synergistic effect between iron and vitamin D, where both nutrients complement one another and being vitamin D deficient results in an individual being more at risk of iron deficiency and vice-versa.  However we have no where near enough data to clarify how these two nutrients work together and what is the best nutritional strategy to avoid deficiency in both.  

This project will investigate the extent of iron deficiency/insufficiency (through assessment of iron dietary intake and nutritional status) of ethnic groups worldwide. We will use two approaches:

1) population-based/’big data’: (i) systematic review/meta-analysis of globally available data on iron intake and status and immune health; (ii) analysis of iron intake and its interaction with respiratory tract infections in the UK Biobank and the USA NHANES datasets. We will specifically focus on South Asian, Black African-Caribbean and Black African American men and women;

2) mechanistic studies – (i) to examine the relationship between intake and nutritional status of iron and 25OHD status on specific markers of immune function in ethnic groups using samples already collected; (ii) an iron/vitamin D supplementation randomised controlled trial (RCT) on markers of immune function in ethnic groups. 

We hypothesise that (1) the studied ethnic groups will be iron deficient/insufficient and there will be a strong (synergistic) interaction between low iron dietary intake/ nutritional status and poor vitamin D status; and (2) the studied ethnic groups require both a higher iron intake and a higher dietary vitamin D intake than the majority of the UK population to maintain optimal immune health throughout the whole year. 

In order to address the key questions we have a number of important objectives. These include: 

·      Conducting a systematic review to examine the extent of low dietary intake and low nutritional status of iron in specific ethnic groups in relation to immune status;

·      Performing a meta-analysis on iron dietary intake and nutritional status, vitamin D status and immune markers in specific ethnic groups;

·      Exploring the associations between iron intake, iron status, vitamin D intake, vitamin D status and immune markers using big data' including using the UK Biobank and the USA NHANES cohorts;

·      Investigating the link between iron intake & status, vitamin D status and markers of immune function in stored samples from ethnic groups;

·      Determining whether increasing both iron and vitamin D status will positively impact markers of immune function in specific ethnic groups.

This study will address, using a combination of analysis of novel ‘big data’ and experimental approaches, the link between low iron and low vitamin D and their impact on immune health. The project will provide key scientific data for the field whilst giving the student a well-rounded experience in nutritional sciences, spanning clinical research, data analysis, industry and policy.

Training opportunities:

We will ensure that the student has enormous opportunity from this project including travelling to national and international conferences to present their work as a means of early communication and to write scientific papers in high impact factor journals, as well comprehensive training in the field of nutritional sciences

You will be receive a broad and specialized training including in systematic review and meta-analysis, analysis of big data epidemiology (prospective cohort study) including from the UK and the USA, clinical analysis techniques, and other transferable skills (e.g. time management and project management). You will co-design elements of the research with both the University of Surrey and the University of Reading enabling you to direct both the direction of your research and personal development.   You will have focused training programme, aligned to the project aims. These will be provided through the University of Surrey’s expertise in nutritional epidemiology (including systematic review and meta-analysis and use of the UK Biobank and the USA NHANES) and the University of Reading’s expertise in conducting human nutrition studies.

The work placements in the Food Industry (ADM Milling and Yakult UK) and collaboration with the Institute of Navel Medicine, Ministry of Defence will provide you with examples of how scientific research is translated into changing Government policy.

Student profile:

This project would be suitable for students with a degree in nutrition, epidemiology, food science or a closely related subject.

Application Information

Full details on how to apply at

Application by online form only. Do not send CVs, they will not be looked at.

Funding Notes

FoodBioSystems DTP studentships are predominantly open to students with established UK residency. Although international students (including EU countries) can apply, due to funding rules no more than 30% of the projects can be allocated to international students. The funding will include a tax free stipend and support for tuition fees at the standard UK rate (in 2021/2022 this is a minimum of £15,609 per year and £4500 per year respectively). There will also be a contribution towards research costs


Buttriss JL, Lanham-New SA, Steenson et al. Implementation strategies for improving vitamin D status and increasing vitamin D intake in the UK: current controversies and future perspectives: proceedings of the 2nd Rank Prize Funds Forum on vitamin D. British Journal of Nutrition 2021; 1 - 21 DOI:
Lanham-New Susan A., Webb Ann R., Cashman Kevin et al. Vitamin D and SARS-CoV2 virus/COVID-19 disease (2020). British Medical Journal (Nutrition, Health & Prevention). DOI
Darling Andrea L., Blackbourn David J., Ahmadi Kourosh R., Lanham-New Susan A. (2020) Very High Prevalence of 25-hydroxyvitamin D Deficiency in n 6433 UK South Asian adults: analysis of the UK Biobank Cohort. British Journal of Nutrition pp. 1-34 Cambridge University Press DOI: 10.1017/S0007114520002779
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