Food, Health and the Microbiome
At Norwich Research Park there is a unique multidisciplinary approach to research in the field of food and health and the fundamental relationship between them.
The microbiome is a term used to describe all the microorganisms in a particular environment. Referring to the human microbiome would mean all the microbes that live in and on a human body. Our bodies contain more microorganisms than cells, and they play an important role in in many elements of human health. The Quadram Institute is at the forefront of the interface between food, gut biology and health, and an important part of their research involves understanding the interactions between food and the gut microbiome.
Developing our understanding of the gut microbiome will enable researchers and clinicians to develop new therapies and treatments to combat diseases and maintain wellbeing throughout life. Researchers at Norwich Research Park are trying to understand what constitutes a healthy microbiome, to understand the differences to this state that lead to diseases. If the changes that are causing a disease are known, it can enable the potential discovery of treatments and prevention methods.
What we eat can have an impact on our microbiome and its important to understand the effects that different types of diets and foods can have. When we eat food and it arrives in our gut, microbes help break it down and release useful small molecules. These molecules get absorbed through the lining in the intestines and can help protect our bodies and keep us healthy. Researchers are trying to characterise how microbes break down food into smaller molecules, what the molecules are and how they help us.
A good example of work in this topic is Dr Fred Warren’s group at Quadram Institute, which studies the impact starch has on our microbiome. Starch is hard to break down so microbes in our gut help with this process, however, some highly processed foods contain starch that is much easier to break down. This means that when microbes break down processed starch they do it rapidly, and our blood sugar levels spike. Continued spiking of our blood sugar over long periods of time is what leads to type 2 diabetes, a huge health problem affecting millions of people in the UK.
Collaborative work between Imperial College London, the John Innes Centre, the University of Glasgow and the Quadram Institute has taken this research into type 2 diabetes a step further. The researchers identified that a naturally occurring wrinkly type of pea could prevent sugar spikes that lead to the disease. These wrinkly peas have different compositions of starch, that make the starch more resistant to digestion. This means the time it takes to digest is longer, so all the sugars do not enter the bloodstream all in one quick go, preventing a ‘spike’.
At the Quadram Institute research is also being done into Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Liver disease, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), cancer and more recently Coronavirus. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) affects over 300,000 people in the UK. It is a long term, chronic condition, characterised by inflammation of the digestive system. The two main types of IBD are Crohn’s Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis, where the inflammation is confined to the colon. IBD is painful and debilitating, with a range of symptoms including diarrhoea, fatigue and weight loss. Gastrointestinal clinicians in the QI Regional Endoscopy Centre are working alongside the scientists studying gut health, immunity, genetics and the microbiome, to understand the complicated interplay between these elements and elucidate how changes from the normal state link to IBD.
Current collaborative studies between the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the Quadram Institute are looking at how the microbiome declines as we reach old age. Researchers want to know if there are links between this decline and chronic age-related conditions, such as dementia. There is also a role in the gut microbiome for preventing pathogens from causing infection in the gut, but researchers are not sure yet what the full extent of this role is.
The Norwich Institute for Healthy Aging (NIHA) is a network set up to bring together expertise from research groups studying strategies for how people can stay healthy as they get older. Life expectancy is higher than its even been, in 2016 it was 79.5 years for males and 83.1 years for females. However, healthy life expectancy between 2017 and 2019 for males was 62.9 years, and for females 63.3 years. This discrepancy highlights that many people are suffering for large portions of their later life with health conditions. NIHA aims to investigate what we can do earlier in life to ensure we grow old healthily and how to spread the word in effective ways to support people to adopt changes to their lifestyles.