Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan explains what the HVN Synergy Study involves

The HVN Metabolic Health priority research programme aims to identify established and novel blood, urine and faecal microbiome markers of increased type 2 diabetes (T2D) risk in Asian Chinese individuals; and in turn to undertake nutritional interventions that target these biomarkers and so decrease T2D progression in high-risk individuals.

In the first tranche of the HVN Programme the Metabolic Health team investigated the susceptibility to T2D in individuals who may be at increased risk of the disease even whilst outwardly-lean, likely due to deposition of fat in ‘risky’ sites such as around and within the internal organs, particularly the liver and pancreas. This phenomenon is termed the Thin-on-the-Outside-Fat-on-the-Inside (TOFI) profile.

A cohort of Asian Chinese and European Caucasian adults were enrolled into the “TOFI-Asia” study. They were of wide age range, bodyweight, body mass index (BMI) and diabetic risk based on blood glucose concentrations. Detailed phenotyping of the cohort confirmed adverse fat deposition in metabolically ‘risky’ sites, and worse blood glucose and lipid profiles in Asian Chinese at an earlier age and lower BMI compared to matched European Caucasians (Sequeira et al., 2019) In addition global (untargeted LC-MS) metabolomic analyses identified novel blood biomarkers of diabetes susceptibility, with a unique Chinese ‘fingerprint’ of markers. Notably these markers differed significantly between the 2 ethnicities (Wu et al., 2019). The cause of this dichotomy in the metabolome is not known.

In tranche 2 of the HVN programme we are conducting a series of clinical studies, firstly to investigate the cause(s) of Asian/Caucasian separation of plasma metabolome as outlined above; and secondly to validate these biomarkers as sensitive to nutrition (diet) intervention in a study design utilising a suite of NZ F&B products.

We are excited to report that we have kicked-off the first of these studies: The Synergy Study – a gold-standard, ‘cause and effect’ residential study, with all food items provided and compliance carefully monitored. This requires the specialised long stay facilities of the University of Auckland Human Nutrition Unit (HNU), Australasia’s only residential nutritional trial centre.

We are proud to be partnering with 13 NZ F&B companies for this study, each contributing products that we believe are of great benefit to the metabolic health of consumers. This consortium spans the depth and breadth of the industry, from micro- to large enterprise; and the enthusiasm of all those involved for both the scientific and networking opportunities this type of multi-product study offers was clearly evident at our recent partner workshop.

What does the study involve?
As mentioned above, the Synergy study is somewhat rare, as it is a fully-controlled residential study; which means that we will have groups of study participants living in our Unit for two weeks, eating a carefully designed (but very tasty!) menu – three meals per day, morning and afternoon snacks, and even dessert! The diets we have designed are based on both the New Zealand and Chinese dietary guidelines, and while we can’t reveal too many details on the exact meals participants will receive (to retain the scientific validity (“blinding”) of our study, a glance at our list of industry partners hints at the high-quality ingredients we have on offer!

We are currently recruiting 10 European Caucasians and 20 Asian Chinese, 18-60 years old, overweight or obese (BMI between 24-40 kg/m2), and prediabetic. Participants who meet all criteria will stay at the HNU for 14 days and enjoy all our meals. Three of these days will involve some clinical measures (including blood samples, measurement of your metabolic rate and body composition), but otherwise participants are able to still continue to work and study, or simply enjoy 2 weeks of being catered for and based a hop-skip-and-jump from Eden Park, vibrant Dominion Road, and the beautiful Maungawhau. Best of all, in addition to the great food, learning about their own metabolic health (and hopefully reducing their diabetes risk!), all participants will be compensated for their time in helping our Synergy study.

Please help in our endeavour to successfully recruit participants by circulating the flyer (English and Chinese versions available) so that those interested may complete the pre-screening survey. Alternatively, the link will take you directly to the pre-screening survey

We are also more than happy to answer any questions that you or potential participants may have, so feel free to get in touch with the Synergy team. (Email: HNU_Synergy@auckland.ac.nz)

As summed up by the Principal Investigator, Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan:
“We see the Synergy Study as a win-win for all concerned – the study participants will get key information about their own health and wellbeing and the chance to decrease their diabetes risk over the two week stay; the industry partners get key, cause-and-effect information about how a “Kiwiterranean” diet, containing their products, influences metabolic risk at the molecular level, right through to holistic measures of mood and appetite in target consumer groups; and the research scientists get world-class scientific outputs that will inform the way in which we can better prevent T2D progression in high risk individuals. What could be better?!”

 Our Synergy Industry Partners:

  • Anagenix
  • Arepa
  • Ceres Organics
  • Fonterra
  • Harraways
  • High Health Alliance Ltd
  • Mt Cook Salmon
  • NUKU ki te Puku Māori business cluster
  • Sanitarium
  • T&G Fresh
  • The  New Zealand Quinoa Co.
  • Zealong Tea Estate
  • Zespri

Introducing new Metabolic Health team members…

HVN PhD candidate, Jack Penhaligan, who recently arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand after 12 months working on his PhD offshore in UK

“Following an 11-month COVID-induced stint spent working from my living room in the UK, my excitement for commencing the Synergy study was amplified ten-fold by my newfound freedom upon arriving on the shores of Aotearoa. Not only was I yearning to explore Tāmaki Makaurau and fulfil many lifetime firsts, such as climbing volcanic peaks (Maungakiekie and Maungawhau, to name a few), but I was equally itching to tick off multiple firsts on my “research bucket list”. Since transposing Cornwall for Cornwall Park, I have been lucky enough to get well underway in my first residential study. Together with the HNU team, we have now managed to consolidate the research design and diet plans for the Synergy study, and I am thoroughly looking forward to meeting more of the ‘team of 5 million’ as we enrol them into our study and aim to reduce the adversity that diabetes brings.”

Kurt Grayson, Research Assistant (Vision Mātauranga), Human Nutrition Unit, University of Auckland

Ko Whetumatarau te maunga
Ko Awatere, ko Karakatuwhero ngā awa
Ko Hinerupe te marae
Ko Te Whanau a Hinerupe te hapu
Ko Nukutaimemeha te waka
Ko Ngati Porou te iwi
Ko Kurt Grayson toku ingoa

I was born and raised in Te Awamutu, a small town in the Waikato. Ever since I can remember I have been passionate about a food, wanting to be a chef when I grow up. This love for food persisted through my later life into exercise and diet, which was realized at university by doing food science and nutrition.  Later through a summer research internship with Toi Tangata I gained practical research experience which further nurtured my passion for overall health and wellbeing. This internship involved an investigation of current approaches to water and the impact on Māori communities. My findings identify current water quality, effect of water quality on life, how mātauranga Māori can be used as a tool for gaining a deep understanding of water, and how our waterways are currently being restored. In my spare time I enjoy learning, exercise, playing guitar, being outdoors, skiing, the beach and attempting to surf.

Dr Aidan Joblin-Mills, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Food Nutrition & Health team, AgResearch

Born and raised in Whanganui, I am of both pākehā and Māori decent with ties to Ngāti Porou iwi and the Hinerupe and Te Rawheoro maraes in the Gisborne district. After the COVID-19 lockdown, I graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a Doctorate in Biomedical Science. Here I utilised yeast genetics and murine cell models to induce and monitor fatty acid lipotoxicity in a high-throughput fashion. Through chemical genomics, proteomics and lipidomics procedures, my work identified and characterised conserved proteins and bioactive compounds that show potential for alleviating metabolic syndrome symptoms.

As an ongoing diabetic researcher, I became a Maurice Wilkins Centre (MWC) affiliate investigator and recipient of the MWC grant for international research funding. This supported a therapeutics study at the Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I screened their Diversity-Orientated Synthesis (DOS) compounds library using a robotics platform. This lead to further characterisation via high-throughput untargeted lipidomics at Melbourne Victoria’s BIOL21 mass spectrometry facilities. It was here that I gained experience using both an Advion ESI chip-based direct infusion system and a Vanquish ultra-high-pressure liquid chromatography system in tandem with a Q Exactive Plus Hybrid Quadrupole-Orbitrap mass spectrometer.

As a newly arrived postdoctoral researcher at AgResearch, I am in the Food Nutrition & Health team at the Grasslands campus. As part of the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge (HVN-NSC) and the metabolic health priority research program,  I employ my expertise in high-throughput omics procedures, network statistics and systems biology to characterise the impact of controlled diets on the plasma metabolome of prediabetic Caucasian and Chinese cohorts over time.