Linking agricultural and medical research to prevent disease
At the Nebraska Food for Health Center, University of Nebraska scientists are studying how the microbiomes — the microorganisms in the gut — are disconfigured in the digestive systems of people with a wide range of diseases, including complex diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, and rare diseases such as cardiomyopathy and cystic fibrosis.
“What we discover may someday lead to unprecedented approaches to prevent complex diseases and improve the quality of life of individuals with rare diseases,” said Andrew Benson, center director. “This is a good test case for us.”
Trillions of microbes, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, live in the human gut microbiome. Normally, the microbiome helps the body regulate organs, develop immune systems, fight disease and metabolize foods. But sometimes that doesn't happen, and center researchers are learning that abnormalities in the gut microbiome are factors in many diseases.
The multidisciplinary center capitalizes on strengths in agricultural production, food processing and biomedical research from throughout the university system to develop the science of dietary modulation — the ability to manipulate the gut microbiome with specific dietary components. The research focuses on developing hybrid crops and foods with proven capacity to influence the microbiome and provide health benefits for people with cystic fibrosis, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, cancers and mental disorders. Identifying components from commodity plants that selectively feed beneficial microbes or inhibit growth of the harmful ones will enable researchers to develop ingredients and foods from such plants with health-promoting properties, Benson said.
We can connect agriculture and medicine in a way that no one else can, and we use the gut microbiome to connect them. Andy Benson
Many major universities with medical centers are investigating the gut microbiome, but the Nebraska Food for Health Center is unique in its approach.
“We can connect agriculture and medicine in a way that no one else can, and we use the gut microbiome to connect them,” Benson said. “Everything we do is driven by science.”
For example, the university’s rich history in plant breeding enables scientists to use quantitative genetics and breeding to identify potentially beneficial “traits” in crops such as corn, soybeans, dry edible beans and sorghum. These traits are identified first by testing the capacity of the grains to affect a microbiome in vitro.
When candidate traits are identified, researchers next validate the effects by observing how the grains interact with the gut microorganisms in a live animal in the Gnotobiotic Mouse Facility. If those molecules show promise, scientists will then progress to testing the effects in human clinical studies and work to develop hybrid crops containing those beneficial ingredients to improve human health.
“This new interface between agriculture and medicine holds tremendous potential to transform how we think about preventing and treating disease,” Benson said.
For more information, visit foodforhealth.unl.edu.
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