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Four related projects aim to unravel how the iron we eat shapes how the immune system develops and responds to vaccines.

Three people stand next to the sign outside the MRC WIMM at the University of Oxford. © MRC WIMM
Professor Hal Drakesmith, Dr Nicole Stoffel and Professor Michael Zimmerman (L-R) stand outside the MRC WIMM.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. A lack of iron can have a significant impact on a range of tissues and organs and can lead to anaemia, while too much free iron can promote bacterial growth and increased risk of inflammation and diarrhoea. Recent research has highlighted the importance of dietary iron not only in supporting red blood cell production, but in the efficacy of our immune response.

The grants awarded to Professor Hal Drakesmith from the MRC Human Immunology Unit, Professor Michael Zimmerman, a visiting Professor at the MRC HIU, and post-doc Dr Nicole Stoffel, aim to explore this relationship between dietary iron, immune response and health in more depth.

  • Professor Hal Drakesmith has been awarded funding by Procter and Gamble to explore the relationship between iron supplements, anaemia, and immune responses to vaccines in pregnant women in Thailand. The trial will run in collaboration with Profs Rose McGready and François Nosten at Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit. 
  • Professor Michael Zimmerman has been awarded two Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants in partnership with Professor Hal Drakesmith. £3.59 million has been awarded to explore how iron is absorbed and distributed by women during pregnancy in Kenya (using stable iron isotopes), while £2.68 million has been granted to test if a protein found in breast milk (lactoferrin) can be an effective nutritional source of iron to control gut inflammation and boost immune responses to oral vaccines. 
  • Dr Nicole Stoffel from ETH Zurich was awarded the Lopez Loretta Prize with 1 million Euros of research funding to study "Effects of iron on immunity and the responses to vaccines"- in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and future global viral threats. Her previous research demonstrated that iron deficiency had a negative impact on vaccine efficacy, with children with deficiency being less likely to develop antibodies after vaccination. This funding will allow further studies in Kenya and Oxford to see whether the link between iron and vaccine efficacy is true in adults as well. Dr Stoffel is joining the Drakesmith Group at the MRC HIU in the summer of 2022.

 A volunteer at the research site in Kenya.© Michael ZimmermanProfessor Michael Zimmerman conducting a research project in Kenya.© Michael Zimmerman














 “Together these research projects will reveal how iron nutrition, anaemia and immunity interact in populations where the burden of iron deficiency and infection is highest and evaluate means to therapeutically improve both haematology and immunity in such populations” says Professor Hal Drakesmith. ‘By exploring the role of iron in infants, children, mothers and pre-menopausal women, and using analytical facilities in the WIMM, we aim to get a detailed picture of the factors leading to iron deficiency and the role of iron in human immunity and vaccine responses. We will also be testing new interventions to correct effects of iron deficiency."


Dr Nicole Stoffel© Michael Zimmerman