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 has been investigating the nutritional problem of weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes in vulnerable communities, including New Zealand’s Asian communities, working with NZ food and beverage (F&B) companies such as the Māori business cluster NUKU ki te PukuTM..

A growing problem both here in New Zealand and in other rapidly ‘Westernising’ countries, it is of particular concern to Asia. In China alone, almost 1 in 3 individuals are struggling with their weight. 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 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.’

Notable over the past 12 months, the focus of the Metabolic Health Programme has widened from our Asian Chinese and European Caucasian cohorts to better represent the diversity of New Zealand, inviting individuals of Māori, Pacific and Asian Indian descent to participate in our clinical studies.

The team is led by a new Principal Investigator Associate Professor Jennifer Miles-Chan.

The TOFI_Asia study previously 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 Sequeira, Dr Louise Weiwei Lu in collaboration with diabetes clinicians Professor Rinki Murphy and Professor Garth Cooper, 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.

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 the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 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, which has been running through 2022–23. Led by the succession PI Associate Professor Jennifer Miles-Chan, in collaboration with Senior Research Fellow Dr Ivana Sequeira and PhD candidate Kok Hong Leiu, SYNERGY is a two-week, residential study in Chinese and European adults with pre-diabetes.

The participants live at the HNU in Mt Eden throughout the study and consume a diet carefully designed to decrease diabetes risk. In collaboration with a consortium of 13 NZ industry partners the diet comprises a ‘SYNERGY’ of New Zealand’s best F&B produce for healthy eating and diabetes prevention.

Alongside the main trial, several sub-studies are being conducted, with particular focus on thermogenesis (how much energy is expended after consuming a test food item?) and substrate oxidation (is the item ‘burnt’ or instead stored in the body?), led by PhD candidate Jack Penhaligan.

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 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 programme through to 2024, with several interventions underway.

Firstly, FERDINAND, a large community diabetes prevention study, conducted in collaboration with commercial partners Anagenix. It is led by HVN PI Associate Professor Jennifer Miles-Chan, with PhD candidate Ibrahim Mohammed and other members of the team. This large, six-month weight loss study aims to evaluate F&B product(s) 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 a dietary intervention, using a personalised nutrition approach, across a culturally-diverse group of New Zealanders.

Secondly, the Tatua Co-operative dairy whey hydrolysate study is underway, focused on improvements in post-meal blood glucose control as well as thermogenesis and substrate utilisation, and function of the barrier that regulates nutrient uptake from the gut.

Knowledge gained through the Metabolic Health Priority Research Programme will help to better identify individuals at high risk of poor metabolic health, and to optimise dietary strategies that may help to prevent the development of metabolic disease.

Research Team

Associate Professor Jennifer Miles-Chan

Jennifer is a Director of the Human Nutrition Unit, Associate Professor 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.

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.

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.