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Nutrition research: taking a broader view

The UK Nutrition Research Partnership for health and disease aims to take nutrition research to the next level by building up a strong research base. On the day of the first partnership meeting, Chair Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, Director of the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit at the University of Cambridge, explains why nutrition matters to you and your research area.

Image credit: University of Cambridge

The food we eat has a huge impact on our bodies. One of the key conclusions of last year’s review of nutrition and human health research in the UK was that we need to gain a deeper insight into how changes in diet affect our health.

We also need more accurate information about how we might better use nutrition to prevent and treat certain important diseases. The UK Nutrition Research Partnership is focused on strengthening the UK science base in basic and translational nutritional research.

Sharing different perspectives

To address this challenge, we’ve pulled together a group of leading scientists from a wide range of disciplines. Our group includes physiologists, biochemists, clinical trialists, epidemiologists, neuroscientists, and people with expertise in specific disease areas, as well as those from a more classical nutritional background.

We hope that by sharing our different perspectives and experience we can come up with imaginative initiatives that will foster new and exciting research.

For my own part, while I use a lot of genetic and biochemical approaches in my research, the diseases I study – obesity and diabetes – are hugely influenced by nutrition. I look forward to stimulating interactions with my colleagues as we bring our different perspectives to the table.

Addressing challenges

We’ll be working hard to come up with initiatives that will strengthen nutritional research in the UK. I’m very interested to get everyone’s perspective on how we can tackle some of the challenges raised in the review.

This includes how we can encourage interdisciplinarity with initiatives that bring nutritional researchers together with scientists who have deep expertise in specific disease areas, to collaborate more effectively.

We’ll discuss how we can attract the best and brightest early-career researchers into the area of nutritional research, so that the future of this area of science is secured.

The research we’ll try to foster will not just be about the food we normally consume in our daily lives. We need to know much more about how we can provide the best nutritional support to those who are ill, so that we can speed up their recovery.

There are some key methodological questions holding back nutritional research. One big challenge is getting reliable quantitative data about our exposure to specific nutrients in food. A lot of researchers are keen to pull together improved analytical technologies with new approaches to population studies, to get more accurate measures of our nutritional exposures.

There are also huge challenges around the communication of nutritional research to the public – it’s so easy to create health scares or ‘cure-all’ stories about specific types of food. What we’ll be concentrating on is establishing what the nutritional facts are concerning certain aspects of maintaining optimal health, and treating or warding off diseases.

Working in partnership

We don’t live in a vacuum and need to work with diverse stakeholders. For example, the food industry knows a huge amount about the contents and manufacture of their products and how to influence the drivers of human eating behaviour. And in other areas of biomedical science, working with industry has been beneficial.

With the right checks and balances in place this should also be possible in the area of nutrition and human health. By building open and equitable partnerships we can undertake robust nutrition research, establish the facts about nutritional health and create a more helpful food environment.

Thinking afresh

It’s too early to say exactly how we’ll bring people together. But many disorders have a nutritional component in their cause, or in the way they’re treated. So there’s real potential for both exciting new nutritional science and its translation into improved human health.

If you’re a nutritional scientist, this would be a good time to reflect on how you might engage in partnerships that could deliver exciting new science. If you’re a researcher who doesn’t consider themselves to be a nutritionist, you might ask yourself: how could the study of nutritional factors have a transformative impact on your own area of research?

The review of nutrition research was commissioned by the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research, led by the MRC in partnership with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The UK Nutrition Research Partnership has been formed by the MRC in partnership with the NIHR and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to help deliver the review recommendations.

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