If you read my earlier #NFDF2014 post about the Norwich Research Park, you will know Norfolk is home to an internationally respected cluster of bioscience institutes. One of these is the Institute of Food Research (IFR), which specialises in exploring the relationship between food and health. This includes researching the importance of gut bacteria to good health, preventing food related illnesses and developing healthier, more sustainable foods (including ways to reduce and reuse food waste).
In early June, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Tim Brocklehurst to find out a bit more about IFR’s research, including its work with commercial businesses. Tim started by explaining the basic difference between the John Innes Centre (JIC) and the IFR. “JIC’s focus in on how to grow more crops (pre-farm gate products). Whereas the IFR is looking at how we convert primary production into safe, nutritious, food (post-farm gate products) for the consumer.”
“So while JIC is concerned with, say, increasing wheat yields, we want to know if it is the right wheat for people’s health needs and how we can improve it. This might mean looking at how to change the level of long-chain sugar molecules (amylopectin and amylose) in wheat, which can influence diabetes, or exploring the way gut bacteria breaks down wheat starch and the effect this has on a person’s calorie intake. We are also interested in the way gut bacteria signals to the brain that we are full – the ‘satiety’ response.”
You are what you eat – possibly
The role of gut bacteria (or gut flora, if you prefer) in human health is pretty amazing – as are the number of different bacteria in our stomach. As some scientists like to point out, from the bacteria’s point of view we are just a giant bacteria hotel. There are more bacteria cells in our body (some 10 to the power of 13) than there are mammalian cells – and there are over 3,000 different species of bacteria in our gut. These micro-organisms control how we process food, absorb calories and vitamins, and even how we feel.
“There is increasing evidence of a link between the state of our gut flora and health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis),” says Tim, “as well as our mood swings. And there is some evidence that re-balancing the flora (using faecal transplants) might help reduce the symptoms of some of these ailments. However, this is a hugely complex area – we have to be careful about how we interpret the evidence and related claims, which is why we need to conduct more research to gather sufficient data.”
That is one of the many reasons why a proposed new Centre for Food and Health (CFH) will be so important not just for the Norwich Research Park but for food science in this country.
“The CFH will effectively be an ‘IFR Plus’,” explains Tim, “integrating our expertise with the skills of colleagues at JIC, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), and the University Hospital. The presence of TGAC is particularly important because its high-speed gene sequencing capabilities enable us to conduct meta-genomic analysis on a scale we could only have dreamt of 10 years ago. We can now ask very detailed questions about what happens at the genetic level and the way diet might affect the genetic expression of proteins.”
Such genetic analysis may in time lead to the development of personalised nutrition, as well as personalised treatment for a range of diet related ailments. This is very exciting for the scientists but also creates significant business opportunities, which is why IFR is heading up a bid for European Union funding to set up a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) specialising in food innovation. “The idea is to start with the scientific research and then partner with the business community to create new products, new jobs and economic growth to fund further research.”
From Farmer to Pharma
According to a recent independent report, every £1 invested the IFR already returns over £8 to the UK economy through the commercialisation of its research and its support for businesses. It does this through a number of routes, including the Food and Health Network, which Tim heads up. “The Network is our knowledge exchange for colleagues in the food, drink and health related industries.”
The IFR has also set up IFR Extra to work with companies on new product development, product enhancement and product safety. IFR Extra is also looking at ways to lower manufacturing costs by saving energy and water and reducing food waste, including working with partners on The Biorefinery Centre (also located on the Research Park) to convert waste into fuel.
“This is a very exciting time to be a food scientist,” says Tim. “Not only is food the UK’s largest manufacturing sector but also globally we face huge challenges in producing enough safe and healthy food to feed a rapidly growing population, and doing so sustainably. This means there are numerous opportunities in both research and business to make a real difference to public health.
“Whether you want to do primary research to inform public policy (on say the level of sugar in food), work on improving foods or develop new medical treatments, this is the field to be in. The Norwich Research Park is already one of Europe’s largest single-site concentrations of research in Food, Health and Environmental Sciences – and it is set to grow rapidly over the next few years. So if you are a keen student or graduate, you should definitely look at the opportunities to work here.”
Thank you for your time Tim and a fascinating morning’s discussion.
Dates for your diary
If you want to find out more about the work of the IFR or the other bioscience institutes at the Norwich Research Park, please follow the links in this blog. Also, if you work in the food industry or the agri-food chain, you should take a look at the Total Food 2014 event, which takes place 11-13 November in the John Innes Conference Centre.
About this post
This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.
Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.
@HuwSayer / @Business_Write