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How Dr Brittany Hazard is addressing obesity and diabetes

13 December 2022

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Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here

What does your role involve? 

Our research is aiming to address the increasing prevalence of diet-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes by improving starch nutritional quality in wheat. I lead a team of scientists from backgrounds in topics such as crop genetics, plant molecular biology, food science and nutrition. As group leader, my responsibilities involve managing the team, supervising PhD students, applying for funding, publishing research papers and engaging with stakeholders and collaborators.

Why are you focusing on wheat? 

Wheat is an important staple crop worldwide but there are concerns about how some wheat-based foods affect health. White bread tends to be rapidly digested in the upper gut, which can lead to high blood sugar levels (high-glycaemic response). Over time, large intakes of high-glycaemic foods can lead to insulin resistance and increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. It is therefore important to develop healthier staple foods to reduce dietary risk factors that contribute to disease.

We’re working to develop wheat starch that is more resistant to digestion in the upper gut. Resistant starch escapes digestion in the upper gut and ends up in the colon where it is further utilised by gut bacteria. Evidence shows that consumption of resistant starch is associated with various health benefits such as improved glycaemia and gut health. Resistant starch could also have potential effects on satiety and keep you feeling full for longer which is important for preventing obesity.

We use a ‘crop-to-clinic’ approach, which involves developing new types of wheat plants that have more resistant starch, studying how the new wheat flours behave in foods and running dietary intervention studies to understand impacts on health. We use molecular biology and crop genetic techniques which are commonly used in conventional wheat breeding. More recently we have projects using precision breeding approaches – or gene editing – which allows us to introduce an exact change in a genetic trait that could potentially happen naturally. Participants in our dietary studies consume breads we have made with the new types of wheat and we analyse how their blood sugar changes.

Why is your work important?  

The increasing prevalence of diet-related diseases is a huge challenge globally – not just a problem experienced by high-income countries like the UK and the US. It’s actually something that affects everybody, including low and middle-income countries which are often faced with the “double burden of malnutrition” – the coexistence of under-nutrition and over-nutrition. By developing healthier foods, we can start to address that.

Ideally, in the future we will be able to increase wheat yields to feed the population and deliver health benefits in staple foods by improving their nutritional profile, including macronutrients like starch and micronutrients like iron and zinc.

Why did you decide to pursue science as a career? 

I grew up outside San Francisco, California. At my high school in the East Bay Area, we had the freedom to develop our own project in Applied Sciences over the course of our senior year, which got me really excited about research. In 2005, I majored in genetics at the University of California Davis and joined an agricultural sorority called Sigma Alpha. I got my first research job in a lab and completed an internship at a vegetable seed company.

In 2010, I decided to do my PhD in a wheat genetics lab because I felt that any improvement in wheat would have the potential to have a huge impact on society. After finishing my PhD, I applied for a job focused on improving cereal quality for human health at the Institute of Food Research which was then based at Norwich Research Park. So, I moved to Norfolk in 2015.

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?  

I enjoy collaborating with researchers at different institutes both at Norwich Research Park and across the UK. We also work with industry partners and the NHS clinical research facility here at the Quadram Institute to support our dietary intervention studies.

I like being in an environment that offers exposure to interdisciplinary work in so many different fields. Norwich Research Park is very diverse and you meet people from different backgrounds and cultures. I really enjoy working with my team and with people from all over the world.

What do you get up to when you are not working? 

I’m a full-time mum with two boys aged two and four. We love going to the beach, especially Happisburgh. There are so many beautiful villages on the Norfolk coast that we like to explore. I also enjoy cooking and trying out new recipes. I love travelling and have just returned from a trip to India to visit family.

Dr Brittany Hazard is career track group leader at the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park. You can follow her lab on Twitter @HazLabQI 

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