Metabolic Health

Principal Investigator: Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan, University of Auckland
Industry partners: University of Otago, AgResearch, Plant & Food Research

Public Summary


The High-Value Nutrition (HVN) Metabolic Health priority research programme PANaMAH (Peak Nutrition for Metabolic Health) has been investigating the nutritional problem of weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes in Asian communities, working with New Zealand Food and Beverage (F&B) companies such as the Māori business cluster NUKU ki te Puku™.

A growing problem in New Zealand and many other rapidly ‘westernising’ countries, diabetes is of particular concern to Asia. In China alone, almost one in three individuals are struggling with their weight, and across Asia, a staggering 300 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, many in new urban mega cities.

Since type 2 diabetes is a nutritional disease, caused primarily through poor lifestyle habits, it can be prevented successfully through better nutrition. Previously common in the over-weight and over forties, for many Asian consumers risk increases even whilst young and outwardly quite slim. The cause may lie in the deposition of body fat within ‘unsafe’ stores, such as the pancreas and liver, which has been termed the TOFI profile, ‘thin on the outside yet fat on the inside’.

The PANaMAH TOFI_Asia study has recruited a large cohort of Asian Chinese and Caucasian adults to investigate possible causes of this increased susceptibility. The clinical studies team at the University of Auckland Human Nutrition Unit (HNU), comprising Professor Sally Poppitt, Dr Ivana Sequiera, Dr Louise Weiwei Lu in collaboration with diabetes clinicians Dr Rinki Murphy and Professor Garth Cooper, have enrolled lean and overweight, young and middle-aged, healthy and pre-diabetic Chinese and Caucasian adults, and completed a series of investigations of the TOFI profile and metabolic risk.

HVN AgResearch scientist Dr Karl Fraser and PhD student Emily Zhanxuan Wu, in collaboration with University of Manchester UK, have screened blood samples for metabolites/biomarkers of increased risk.

Also, a sub-group have undergone magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure pancreas and liver fat – thought to be important markers of diabetes risk – in collaboration with researchers at University of Newcastle, UK. Phenotyping using blood biomarkers and body/organ fat storage has shown the biomarker ‘fingerprint’ to differ significantly between Chinese and Caucasians.

Whether this is due to different physiology, different pathology, or a different background diet is a focus of the SYNERGY Study, planned for 2021. Led by succession PI at the University of Auckland Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan, SYNERGY is a 2 week, residential study in Chinese and European adults with pre-diabetes.

The participants will live at the HNU throughout the study and consume a diet carefully designed to decrease diabetes risk. In collaboration with a consortium of industry partners the diet will comprise a ‘SYNERGY’ of New Zealand’s best F&B produce for healthy eating and diabetes prevention.

Identifying early predictive markers of diabetes is the first step in developing new opportunities for F&B companies. The flagship Tū Ora project with the NUKU ki te PUKUTM Māori business cluster has led our HVN Vision Matāuranga platform, investigating a plant-based higher-protein snack bar scheduled for commercialisation in Asia.

Important outcomes from the programme include the characterisation of postprandial glucose-lowering by the higher-protein bar, and the observation of worsened glucose response in adults with fatty pancreas and fatty liver.

F&B interventions will continue as the central focus of the HVN program through to 2024;  with a new diabetes prevention study, PiCUP_New Zealand, led by Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan. This large, 12-month study aims to evaluate F&B products for better glucose control during two months of weight loss and over the following year. It also explores whether blood biomarkers, body composition and other characteristics can predict the response of individuals to dietary intervention, using a personalised nutrition approach, across a culturally-diverse group of New Zealanders.

Knowledge gained through the Metabolic Health priority research program will help to better identify individuals at high risk of poor metabolic health, and also to optimise dietary strategies to prevent the development of metabolic disease.

Research Team

Professor Sally Poppitt

Sally is the founding director of the Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Auckland and the Fonterra Chair in Human Nutrition and the principal investigator of the Metabolic Health programme.

Sally’s research has long been focused on the prevention and treatment of conditions arising from poor nutrition including overweight and obesity, metabolic dysregulation and diabetic and cardiovascular risk.

Sally has extensive experience in conducting nutrition intervention trials in developed and developing countries.

Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan

Jennifer is a Director of the Human Nutrition Unit and Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, and principal investigator of the Metabolic Health programme.

Jennifer’s research focuses on inter-individual variability in nutritional energetics and the regulation of body composition and metabolism – in essence, trying to work out why some of us are more susceptible to obesity and metabolic disease than others, and how we might be able to tailor prevention and treatment strategies accordingly.