New Network will pool nutrition expertise to tackle health problems

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Keeping the growing global population healthy means not only boosting food production, but balancing our nutritional needs in line with our health.

As the incidence of obesity and diabetes continues to rise, increasing prevalence of chronic health conditions and mortality, focusing on what we eat and how it affects our health is increasingly important.

The launch of a new network at Imperial is hoping to tackle some of the major health issues relating to food and nutrition by drawing on the expertise of researchers from a number of faculties, and making the College a beacon for nutrition research.

Imperial’s Ryan O’Hare spoke to Professor Gary Frost, chair in nutrition and dietetics at the College and head of the new network, to find out more.

What is the Nutrition Network?

The Nutrition and Food Network is about bringing people with diverse backgrounds together to focus on problems which are associated with diet, many of which are currently intractable health problems, such as obesity and type II diabetes, where there seems to be no solution to the increasing burden.

What shape are things in?

At the moment, it is still in the early stages. People have been working together in the background for a number of years, and hopefully, one of the major aims is to facilitate innovations within the network itself.

Imperial may not be well known for its work in nutrition, so why this change, why here?

Although Imperial is not overtly known for nutrition, many groups’ focus is on nutrition and they lead the world. 

For example, Elio Riboli’s research into cancer has a big focus on nutrition, Jeremy Nicholson’s work with the microbiota has a big overlap with nutrition, and a number of the engineering projects also involve nutrition, so although the College may not have been seen as being a major player in the field, in reality it has. 

One thing that the network will do is to highlight that in a single space.

Will it be more internally focused or be a way to get the word out that Imperial is an academic centre for nutrition?

I think it’s both. It’s really important at the present time that we have a window that the rest of the world can see, that Imperial plays an important role in nutritional discovery. 

Many of the funders, such as the BBSRC, MRC, and Wellcome Trust, all have a focus on nutrition and there is a concern that the UK may be falling behind in the field, so having that shop window is really important.

I hope that the network will stimulate new collaborations to answer some of the actual big problems.

Who will be involved in the network?

We hope it will reflect all parts of the College. Currently there is representation from all of the faculties. I think the unique thing it can do is to bring together diverse people such as the Business School, engineers, chemists etc. into looking for new solutions.

Do you think that cross-faculty approach will push things forward better than if it were just a group of nutritionists? 

Absolutely. If you look at major discoveries now, it’s not a single person sitting in a room. Most of the big science breakthroughs now come from very diverse teams.

Is there a plan for a single centralised location? 

I think having people in one space can be a good thing, but people are already so well connected in many ways that having everyone together in an open plan space may not facilitate things, especially when you are looking to harness expertise from the big groups within Imperial. 

What’s far more important is facilitating a place where people can discuss ideas, or come together under a topic area they might not have thought of before.

Are there any projects carried out at the College that give an example of what you want to achieve?

The whole purpose of putting the network together is to facilitate these, but there are a number of examples already. One is a collaboration between myself, Elaine Holmes, Ed Tate and Aylin Hanyaloglu to understand how metabolites signal in the human colon. 

This means developing specific chemical tools, to understand the profile of metabolites, obtaining the samples to carry out the work and then working out how it all actually works at the cell surface. This is just one example of bringing a diverse group of people together to work on one particular nutritional problem.

Another example is a BBSRC-funded project looking at how food is digested very early on, that’s working with partners outside of the College.

What is the focus on early career scientists?

Young scientists and early career researchers are very important as they are the next wave, and to put them in an environment where they can think across boundaries is very important. To have a space where they can come together and think about how they might drive the field forward, will be absolutely fantastic and very innovative.

What are your personal hopes for the network?

What I hope is that it will breed new understanding in some areas which are very difficult to explain and difficult to manage. I hope it will bring together people so they can access different areas of funding and be successful, and I hope it will demonstrate to the outside world that Imperial plays a major role in this important area.

An internal launch event for the Nutrition and Food Network will be held on the 21 September from 9-11am in G41, Royal School of Mines.

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