March 29, 2012
These assistant professors of biology at the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at UBC’s Okanagan campus have won a Grand Challenges Exploration grant for their research on the gut and nutrition. The $100,000 grant, an initiative from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, enables researchers worldwide to test unorthodox ideas that address persistent health and development challenges. Deanna, a PhD in microbiology, and Sanjoy, a PhD in pharmacology, are no strangers to unorthodox ideas. Their research is breaking our society’s pre-conceived notions of what fats are healthy by demonstrating that a diet of polyunsaturated fats increases our susceptibility to intestinal diseases.
Deanna and Sanjoy’s research shows that the food industry has increased the intake of Omega 3 and 6 oils in our diet without looking deeper into health concerns. It is the food industry, not science that drives what we buy and what we eat. Deanna examines how microbes in the human gut influence inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Sanjoy‘s interests lie in cardiovascular disease and how dietary fats affect overall health and nutrition. The gut has more bacteria than anywhere else in the human body. “From a scientific point of view, that’s crazy,” says Deanna. Fifteen percent of Canadian health care costs are related to gastrointestinal issues, a higher percentage than cardiovascular disease. Microbes are responsible for influencing and regulating your intestinal environment. How well those microbes regulate your system- is linked to diabetes, autism and brain behaviour like depression. Microbes are also responsible for how susceptible a person is to developing IBDs like Crohn’s and colitis.
Over the past 30 years, Western society has seen an increase in intestinal diseases -diseases controlled by microbes. Deanna and Sanjoy focused their studies on how a mother’s dietary fats affect the intestinal health of the offspring. Their research is uncovering some surprising news about polyunsaturated fats. “We used to consume higher saturated fats before the industrializing of vegetable oils,” says Sanjoy. “We’ve been told by the food industry that polyunsaturated fats are healthy and we’ve increased them in our diet by 54%.” Polyunsaturated fats were found to exacerbate colitis and impacted the gut’s micro flora. They discovered that a mother’s polyunsaturated fat diet impacted her offspring’s chance of developing gut disease.
The pair and their research team have one year to compile data to become eligible for a $1million prize from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We have a competitive chance to impact people’s health,” says Deanna.
“Let’s develop an understanding of how much is too much in our diets. We can understand how our food works for us. We can control, to an extent, what we eat.” Deanna and Sanjoy are fulfilling UBC’s promise to transform lives and change the world- their research is starting an evolution by understanding how to prevent disease, an evolution that will shape the health of our society.