Nutrients and Genes: Understanding the Relationship Between What You Eat and What You’ve Got
Researchers already know that higher calorie intake and what’s in people’s diets are important factors contributing to the development of many chronic diseases.
Yet, some people are lucky enough to have a genetic make-up that protects them from the undesirable effects of bad diet. There is the story, for example, of an 88-year-old man who ate 25 soft-boiled eggs each day without raising his blood cholesterol level. In fact, when doctors went to the old man’s rest home and talked to his friends, they discovered the behavior had been going on for at least 15 years. How could that be?
As Canada Research Chair in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Nutrition, Dr. Luis Agellon is studying the process by which the body manufactures bile acids. These compounds are needed by the body to absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins, and to rid the body of excess cholesterol. The genes involved in manufacturing bile acids are themselves affected by what people eat. When something goes wrong with the bile-making process, a variety of metabolic disorders can happen, including obesity, adult-onset diabetes, coronary artery disease, fatty liver disease, gallstones and certain types of cancers.
Bile acids are important not only in dissolving fats in the intestine, but also for metabolizing nutrients in the body. This is because bile acids can directly control the activity of genes involved in these processes.
Agellon ultimately aims to learn which genes are involved in the absorption and processing of nutrients, and how nutrients co-ordinate the activities of different metabolic pathways. His research could lead to new insights into a range of metabolic disorders and, because genetics plays such a big role in the development of these disorders, his work may even provide new ways to identify Canadians who are at risk of developing such problems, as well as suggest treatments that could prevent these conditions from getting worse.